Plastic seems all pervasive and unavoidable. Since the 1960s our use of plastic has increased dramatically, and subsequently, the portion of our garbage that is made up of plastic has also increased from 1% of the total municipal solid waste stream (household garbage) to approximately 13% (US Environmental Protection Agency).
Plastic products range from things like containers and packaging (soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles) to durable goods (think appliances, furniture and cars) and non-durable goods including things from a plastic party tray to medical devices. Sometimes marked with a number and a chasing arrow, there is an illusion that all plastics are recyclable, and therefore recycled. But there are a number of problems with this assumption.
While use and consumption of plastic is increasingly high, doubts about viable options for reuse, recycling and disposal are also on the rise. Complications such as the increasing number of additives used alter the strength, texture, flexibility, colour, resistance to microbes, and other characteristics of plastics, make plastics less recyclable. Additionally, there is very little market value in some plastics, leading municipalities to landfill or incinerate plastics as waste. Based on figures from the EPA (2011 data) only 8% of plastic materials are recovered through recycling.
Another major concern about plastics in the waste stream is their longevity and whether or not they are truly biodegrade. It is estimated that most plastics would take 500-1000 years to break down into organic components. Because of this longevity and the low rate of recycling, much of our plastic waste ends up in landfills or as litter. Some of this plastic waste makes its way via rivers and wind to the ocean. Garbage barges, and the trans-continental transport of recyclable materials also lead to an increasing amount of plastics in our oceans and waterways.
Plastic waste directly and indirectly affects living organisms throughout the ecosystem, including an increasingly high impact on marine life at a macro and micro scale. According to United Nations, almost 80% of marine debris is plastic. Policy enforcement remains weak, global manufacture of plastics continues to increase, and the quantity of plastic debris in the oceans, as well as on land, is likely to increase.
With limited sustainable recovery of plastics, there is a growing global movement to reduce the generation of plastic. Certain types of plastic may be ’safer‘ for the environment than others, however, there are troubling issues associated with all of them, leading to the conclusion that action is needed to remove plastic waste, and stricter controls are required to limit new sources of plastic pollution.
Efforts such as light weighting of packaging and shifts to compostable plastics are options. Many people use eco-friendly bags for the sake of green living. Policies limiting the use of plastics such as bottle bills and bag bans are other ways to decrease the production and consumption of plastics.
Mining the debris fields in our oceans and turning plastic waste into usable materials, from socks made of fishing line to fuel made from a variety of plastic debris, is one way to mitigate the current situation. You can do your part by using renewable cotton bags.
Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link
This is a true and very sad rubbish clearance story. While this particular incident is certainly a case of “a picture is worth a thousand words” (or more!), we hope that our words give ammunition to those who are working toward positive change to keep our waste removal out of our oceans.
A Gruesome Ghastly Sight
Usually, the sight of a majestic sperm whale is such a magical moment, most people try to freeze frame the image in their mind. In fact, many people stop breathing momentarily they are so excited to see such a magnificent creature! However, this was not the reaction people had on February 27 when a thirty-three foot, totally emaciated, sperm whale washed up dead on Cabo de Palos Beach in southwestern Spain. It was not at all a wondrous sight… it was a gruesome ghastly sight… one of those images that people would prefer to block from their mind but can’t no matter how hard they try!
The sight of this gigantic creature, lying there dead, the life sucked out of it from eating our rubbish clearance, is heartbreaking to everyone who has viewed the scene either in person or via picture. It sent shock waves across the environmental community. Many shared images of the ghostly dead sperm whale on social media. All who saw it seemed utterly horrified, many vowing to do something about it. The mantra seemed to be “Shame on us for allowing this to happen!”
The deceased sperm whale, a juvenile male, weighed in at 6.5 metric tonnes (14,330 pounds, 5900 kilograms). While this may seem massive to a human weighting a mere 175 pounds, it is about seven times less than what male sperm whales usually weigh. He weighed so much less than a juvenile male sperm whale is supposed to weigh, the idiomatic expression, “he was skin and bones,” would not even begin to cover his physical state. It was quite obvious from the pictures that he literally starved to death.
Cause of such a grueling death
Experts at the El Valle Wildlife Recovery Centre determined that his stomach and intestines were filled with twenty-nine kilograms (sixty-four pounds) of garbage! These included discarded cans, netting, ropes, and plastic bags. With all this rubbish compacting his digestive system, he could not digest real food and he starved to death. In addition, he had a severe stomach infection, most likely because one of the rubbish clearance items he swallowed ripped a tear in his stomach lining.
The pain and torture this young sperm whale must have endured before he finally died and washed ashore to shame humanity must have been extensive. How unjust it is to this creature to not only die but actually die in a way that was very likely slow and tremendously painful.
What do we as humans owe his species for the sin of his death? Should his death be the impetus to do more to rid our oceans of rubbish removal? Should we plaster this image of this whales lifeless emaciated body on anti-litter posters even though it makes us feel awkward and ashamed to see it?
Sperm Whale – A Magnificent Creature
Sperm whales have been forever immortalized in the great novel, Moby Dick, so they will live for eternity on in the human psyche even if they go extinct. However, unlike the dinosaurs that roamed our planet before our time, and went extinct long before we made our great migration out of Africa into the fertile crescent, sperm whales have shared our planet for all of human history.
Many members of our species have come eye to eye with this beast and we must answer for our crimes of littering that has been proven to be the direct cause of this whales death, and in fact, threatens his entire species.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the conservation status of sperm whales as “vulnerable” which is only one small step away from becoming endangered — and some experts actually argue that sperm whales are already endangered. While it is impossible to do an accurate census of sperm whales, scientists estimate there about 200,000 of these whales left. Keep in mind, there used to be many millions of them in our oceans but they were a favorite of whaling expeditions who hunted them for their valuable blubber, meat, and even their bones.
Sperm whales are now protected under international law so most countries no longer hunt them. However, the Japanese still have a taste for sperm whale and several are harvested for supposed “scientific research” every year. The whale meat from these scientific specimens does get sold in Japanese markets. However, even given this loophole in the law that protects sperm whales, the direct human harvesting of sperm whales pales in comparison to how threatening our rubbish clearance is to the endurance of this species.
Time for Introspection
The sperm whale that washed up dead on Cabo de Palos Beach is only one of many who have died due to eating rubbish clearance. Plastic bags are the biggest culprit but all rubbish in our oceans poses a dire threat to sperm whales and other marine mammals. What we do about our rubbish clearance problem over the next few decades will likely determine the fate of this entire species and many other marine mammals.
The stomach and intestines of sperm whale was filled with 29 kg of garbage
It is important to note how intelligent sperm whales are though to be. Sperm whales have the biggest brains in the animal kingdom, weighing in at five times that of the human brain, with an imposing volume of eight thousand cubic centimeters! They’re also known to express obvious emotions. What would they say to use if we could somehow crack the sperm whale language code? Would they beg us to remove our rubbish from their habitat? Would they appeal to our better angels?
Identifying the Enemies
Sperm whales eat mostly “garden variety” squid, less than a foot in length, but in an ironic twist, their worst enemy is thought to be the giant squid. These colossal squid are usually between ten to thirteen metres (33 to 43 feet). Serrated sucker scars from these ginormous squid are often found on sperm whale bodies. While sperm whales may eat these giant squid, they put up a good fight at minimum and may even be able to kill, or at least harm significantly, a sperm whale at times.
However, the rubbish clearance that we as humans fill our oceans with cause more damage to sperm whales than all the giant squid in the world. We must face the hard reality that our rubbish clearance is directly responsible for the death of sperm whales, and many other marine mammals, and many other animal species for that matter. We must own up to that fact and start seriously working toward finding solutions.
If you have pictures of sperm whales, please send them to Clearabee’s Facebook page in honor of the most recent sperm whale death at the hands of our rubbish clearance. Clearabee is the leading on demand rubbish clearance company in the UK.
Pieces of plastic have been trying to get our attention. The first scientific reports of plastic pollution in oceans were in the early 1970s. This waste plastic soaks up other pollutants at up to a million times the concentration in water, harming and killing sea life worldwide. From the point of view of the plastic, we have convincingly failed with solutions. Over the past 40 years the problem has grown around 100 times, with now over 8 million tonnes of plastic waste added to oceans per year.
Everyone is aware about ways for plastic to not become waste. We can set up redesign, sharing, refill, recycling and even composting. When it comes to creating practical possibilities for not making waste, people are super smart. But when it comes to making policy to install this practice throughout the economy, which has been the aim of circular economy for the past four decades, we’re consistently collectively stupid. I call this mob thinking.
We have intelligent activists, business people, experts and officials unintentionally thinking like a mob? always bringing forward the same decades old policy weapons. When these weapons don’t work there is a discussion about strategy but not any actual new strategy, just talk about how forcefully to use the same old policy weapons. This is how it’s been possible for waste management, waste regulation and the unsolved waste problem to all grow in tandem for so long.
The stomach and intestines of sperm whale was filled with 29 kg of garbage
If the piece of plastic had a voice in the circular economy debate what might it say? It would remind us to beware mob thinking. Today’s problems are solvable only by trying new thinking and new policy weapons. Precycling is an example. The piece of plastic doesn’t mind whether it’s part of a product that’s longlife or refilled or shared or refurbished or recycled or even composted (so long as it’s fully biodegradable). It doesn’t even mind being called ‘waste’ so long as it’s on its way to a new use. Action that ensures any of these is precycling.
Our piece of plastic does mind about ending up as ecosystem waste. It does not wish to join 5 trillion other pieces of plastic abandoned in the world’s oceans. It would be horrified to poison a fish or starve a sea bird. Equally it does not want to be perpetually entombed in a landfill dump or transformed into climate destabilising greenhouse gases by incineration.
The two possible outcomes for a piece of plastic, remaining as a resource or being dumped as ecological waste, are the same fates awaiting every product. Our economies and our futures depend on our ambition in arranging the right outcome. The old policy weapons of prescriptive targets and taxes, trying to force more of one waste management outcome or less of another, are largely obsolete.
Circular economy can be fully and quickly implemented by policy to make markets financially responsible for the risk of products becoming ecological waste. Some ever hopeful pieces of plastic would be grateful if we would get on with doing this.
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