Home Opinion Suffolk Closeup Plastic pollution is overtaking Earth’s oceans — Can the crisis be reversed?

Plastic pollution is overtaking Earth’s oceans — Can the crisis be reversed?

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans. Can anything be done to reverse this environmental crisis?

Media have been doing extensive reporting on the mess to the environment being made by plastic, especially the marine environment and the life in it.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis, who with his “Encyclical on the Environment” in 2015 established himself as highly knowledgeable about the scourge of environmental pollution that has befallen the Earth, and committed to action to try to undo the mess, is now zeroing in on plastic.

“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic,” said the pope last month. “We need to pray as if everything depended on God’s providence, and work as if everything depended on us.”

The “Sunday Morning” show of CBS-TV in August had a remarkable segment, a “cover story” — its main feature — titled “Piling up: Drowning in a sea of plastic.”

It began with technology reporter David Pogue declaring: “In the 1950s, a new material burst onto the scene that would change the world forever. Cheap, durable, sanitary, strong, and light…After 65 years of making plastic, we’ve pretty much mastered the art. What we haven’t yet figured out is what to do with plastic once we’re done with it.”

He interviews Roland Geyer, professor of environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who says of plastic: “It lasts a really long time. It doesn’t biodegrade. So, it just sits there…We have statistics reaching all the way back to the dawn of plastic mass production, 1950. And if we add it all together, it’s 8.3 billion metric tons. So, if we take that and spread it out evenly over California, the entire state of California would be covered. And that would be an ugly sight.” Plastic — knee-deep.

They speak about plastic in oceans. “Every single year, somewhere between five and 12 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean,” says Geyer. “Plastic in the ocean has a tendency to break down into other smaller pieces. And these tiny pieces then get taken up even lower down in the food chain. So, we know that it ends up on our dinner plates.”

“Wait a minute – there’s plastic in my food?” asks Pogue.

“There is plastic in your food. Plastic in your sea salt. And there is plastic coming out of your tap,” responds Geyer.

“In fact, at this rate, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish,” says Pogue, a calculation we wrote about here this summer.

Plastic wastes in the oceans is a crisis of global proportions. Photo: Wikimedia By vaidehi shah from Singapore – Litter on Singapore’s ECP, CC BY 2.0, Link

As to the recycling of plastic — the big pitch by the plastic industry to somehow claim plastic is a sustainable product — Geyer says that as of 2017 the world recycled only about 9 percent of all plastic.

And “even if you’re good about using your recycling bin, your plastic may never actually get recycled,” says Pogue. On a visit to a plastic recycling facility in New Jersey, he says, “For 30 years, we’ve had an easy solution for disposing of that dirty plastic: Send it to China.”

Samil Bagaria, cofounder of GDB International, the company that owns the facility, says: “China was buying 50 percent of all graded plastic scrap in the world. Now that continued for, say, 20, 30 years.  And then there was I think a movie made by somebody, ‘Plastic China.'”

The 2017 documentary “illustrated the brutal truth about the contaminated plastic that developed nations were selling to China,” says Pogue. “It showed a desperately poor Chinese family eking out a living by hand-sorting these mountains of plastic trash.” Out of “national pride,” China decided “we don’t want to be the world’s dumping grounds,” he notes. “So the Chinese government announced a new policy. Starting on January 1 of this year, China stopped accepting other countries’ plastic unless it is impossibly pure.”

Clay Warner, recycling manager at Garten Services in Salem, Oregon, says that now “we… have large volumes of the types of plastic that nobody will buy, sitting, waiting for somebody to buy them. And then you have to decide how long you’re gonna hold on to it before you end up throwing it away.”

Warner comments that, “I do think, in my own opinion, that we do need to ban certain plastics and packaging.”

Bagaria says: “We cannot imagine life without plastics. But we cannot continue to lead our life the way we are. It’s not like, ‘Oh, let’s use this planet Earth, then we will move to another planet.’ No, this is what we have. We need to take care of this.”

Yes, this earth is where we live. And, as Pope Francis said, we must fight the “emergency” of pollution by plastic and save the “marvelous…great waters” and life in them.

Suffolk County has taken actions. It has restricted the distribution of single-use plastic bags — and we’ve learned to live with that. It’s begun a voluntary program to get restaurants to switch to non-plastic straws. I was given a paper straw for a drink last week and it worked fine. Early-on, Suffolk banned the mass release of helium-filled plastic balloons. But that’s been only a start in which New York State, the nation and world must join together.

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Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl