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Plastic Pollution: A critical environmental threat

"I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is" implored Greta Thunberg at the end of her speech during the World Economic Forum in Davos on the 24th of January 2019. Nowadays we are witnessing more and more debates around the negative impact of technical progress on our Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and wildlife. This is why figures such as Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist, strongly encourages the world to take immediate action on this matter.

I think we can all agree that progress and extraordinary discoveries made throughout the centuries have contributed in improving human development and so making the world a better place. In other words, it has definitely allowed advancements, developments or changes on technical, scientific or social levels. Nevertheless, we can assertively say that with the good always comes the bad. Indeed, humans in their 200,000 years existence have been exhausting resources, polluting the earth’s once prolific lands and oceans leading many species to extinction and maybe one day most likely their own. Many scientists believe that we are now at the midst of the sixth wave mass extinction. Indeed, the 2018 Living Planet Report reveals that wildlife populations have declined tremendously by 60% in less than 50 years. For instance, this very alarming report divulges a decline of 83% in the freshwater species populations. According to the Center for Biological Diversity “We're currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago”. They estimate that 30 to 50 percent of all species will be extinct by mid-century.

Moreover, the overshoot day has moved-up to July 29 this year, the earliest ever, compromising our planet earth’s future regenerative capacity more than ever before. This means that mankind is currently consuming the world’s resources 1.75 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can rekindle.

We are the first generation to come to terms that human creation is leading to human destruction and its surroundings. Indeed, 99% of all currently endangered species are threatened by human activities. However, we may also be the last who can take a stand and try to save our beloved home before it’s too late.

So, the question that must be answered is whether our cleverness, inventiveness and activities are now the drivers of every global problem we face?

To answer this question, we will focus on one of human’s kind greatest achievement but also mistake: the invention of plastic. Plastic pollution perfectly illustrates the havoc and wreck we are causing to our beloved mother nature. From the Arctic to our local beaches, it is choking our oceans and eradicating its inhabitants like a plague.

Plastic pollution: a fast growing and maybe uncurable disease that threatens our planet and us

For 70 years, the world’s plastic usage has increased relentlessly from humble beginning to a position where humanity now produces roughly its own weight in plastic every year. Plastic is omnipresent and even indispensable in our every-day life as it is cheap, convenient and multifaceted having the capacity of being molded into anything. Indeed, we use it ceaselessly by storing our food in it, drinking from it and even brushing our teeth with it.

However, plastic represents an environmental threat as it is durable eternally remaining on our planet in some form or another. According to Craig Leeson, the director of the aggravating 2016 documentary, A plastic Ocean, “the problem we are facing today is that only a fraction of the plastic produced is recycled, the rest ends up in our environment and it’s coating our lands and our oceans like a disease”. Consequently, about 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the world’s ocean every year and more than 70% of all ocean plastic sinks to the bottom of the ocean. This infestation is killing many innocent animals and life forces.

For example, 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomach causing these poor creatures to suffocate to death.

Moreover, with the never ending and strong increase of human population, we are creating more waist than the planet can absorb. It was estimated, that by 2050 there would be more plastic than wildlife in the sea if no global response is put into place.

So, taking between 100 and 1000 years to degrade, plastic has now become a real problem as it poses a direct threat to wildlife. It has also led to the creation of “the Great Pacific garbage patch” an area infested by plastic waste whose size is estimated to be about the size of Texas.

What can we do to remedy the problem caused by plastic usage?

There is a turning point as solutions are being found to reduce the scale of plastic waste and the threat it poses. In 2013, Boyan Slat, a Dutch inventor presented a revolutionary idea. Indeed, The Ocean Cleanup created a machine that could clean up 50% of the ocean in five years. He developed technologies to extract plastic pollution from the oceans and prevent more plastic debris from entering ocean waters. The functioning of his machine is quite ingenious as it uses the oceans currents to collect the debris. He estimates that in one day, his machine could extract 55 tones of plastic. Boyan Slat has decided to place 5 machines in the main areas where plastic residues remain. The first experimental tube was put in place last summer in the Great Pacific garbage patch. Despite technical issues, the system collected around 2000 kilograms of plastic including ghost nets during testing.

In addition, The Ocean Cleanup recently put into motion a new invention called “The Interceptor” who also extract plastic waste, but this time from rivers as it is known that 100 000 rivers are responsible for 80% of plastic entering ocean waters. This solar powered machine can autonomously extract about 100 000 kilograms of trash per day. This is the world first scalable solution to intercept plastic pollution as it can be placed into any river. A barrier is installed in the river to guide the plastic to the mouth of The interceptor where it is then placed into one of its six dumpsters who are emptied about once every two days. Not long ago, two Interceptors have been put into place in Malaysia and Jakarta, the heaviest polluting rivers in the world, and have been functioning really well.

Nevertheless, they are still working on these devices in order to achieve their goal of collecting some of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic brought by ocean current. In order to succeed, The Ocean’s Cleanup main objective is to heighten the scale of machines creating a full fleet of cleaning systems

Furthermore, thanks to innovation, plastic alternatives are being created in order to stop, once and for all, the use of plastic. For example, bottles, films or containers can be made out of plant-based plastics. This substitute is made from the waste of natural sources such as corn. Nowadays, 15% of the brand Innocent Drinks’ plastic bottles are plant-based.

Another extraordinary discovery is the use of mycelium (mushroom roots) to put agricultural waste into moulds enabling packaging to grow in size.

Additionally, the UK startup, Ooho, has tailored an edible and so biodegradable water bubble with seaweed replacing plastic bottles.

Even though there is tremendous progress, we still have a lot of work to do in banalizing these products and finding more durable substitutes to fight against plastic pollution. Indeed, this is just the beginning and our fight to save our beloved planet and its inhabitants is far from over because “while there is life there is hope”.

DC’s main goal is to decode encrypted news for an enlightened citizen

Mathilde Cacaly, DC’s Vice President in Warwick University and writer


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