When it comes to single use plastics, the numbers are staggering: 500 million single-use straws are used and discarded each day and 100 billion plastic bags are used annually in the United States alone. Given that plastic beverage bottles take 450 to 1,000 years to decompose (if at all), and plastic bags take approximately 1,000 years, it’s no surprise to hear the largest area of plastic debris in the ocean is estimated to be 3.8 million m2 (10 million km2) in size.
A recent study has found that 90 percent of all seabird species have plastic in their stomachs, and it’s well-known by now that plastics bio-accumulate within food chains, usually spelling death for animals that eat them. Fish consumed by humans can contain microplastics (pieces of plastic less than 1mm in size), which in turn contain chemicals that are stored in human fat, damaging human health.
Although it’s a gigantic problem, as stated, our reliance on single-use plastics is unnecessary and can be addressed with alternative technologies and social change. Below is our roundup of a few of the best developments and initiatives meant to address the problem of plastic in our oceans — and stomachs.
Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a social initiative based in Bali, was founded by two young girls, Melati, 14 and Isabel, 12, who are committed to phasing out plastic bags on Bali by 2018. They are working with international organizations, government and local communities to achieve this and have received numerous awards. In 2014, they hosted a festival and trash fashion show and have collaborated with Dr. Jane Goodall, met the secretary general of the United Nations and also a number of well-known celebrities. They have given educational and inspirational talks at schools in Indonesia, Singapore, Holland, Switzerland and India, and have spoken to more than 5,000 students. They are currently running a pilot village that will, in time, become plastic-bag free.
The Green Protectors
The Green Protectors is an environmental youth group based on the Cambodian island of Koh Sdach, and supported by Projects Abroad and the Koh Sdach secondary school. This island is very small and remote, and faces a number of challenges including a growing population with limited resources, no formal waste management and a lack of awareness of global environmental issues. The waters and reefs surrounding the island are littered with waste from the local population and a visit to nearby uninhabited islands reveals shorelines covered in single-use plastics. The Green Protectors are working hard to educate themselves and the local community about plastic pollution through educational talks and clean-up days. They are currently working with Projects Abroad to introduce cost-effective solutions to waste management on the island.
Erin Rhoads, 31, a graphic designer from Melbourne, Australia, decided to give up plastic in 2013 after realizing the damaging impact it has upon the environment and human health. By being prepared to say no to disposable products and considering the life cycle of items prior to purchasing them, she has eliminated almost all waste from her household, and exemplifies the zero-waste movement. In the two years following her decision to go plastic-free, Rhoads has filled only one jar with trash and has not needed to use a household trash can. There are plenty of tips out there for those who would like to follow a similar path, living with no plastic — or at least less plastic.
Bakeys Edible Cutlery
There are various products available today as alternatives to single-use cutlery made from virgin plastic; Indian-born Narayana Peesapaty took these advances one step further and created Bakeys Edible Cutlery in 2011. The company produces edible cutlery from sorghum flour and water, with no additional chemicals or preservatives. Silverware is 100 percent natural, designed to be eaten after use and, if not consumed, will decompose within three to seven days. Gluten-free recipes can be requested, as can additional ingredients including spices and vegetables. It is hoped the market for these products could help Indian farmers move away from rice farming, which uses 60 times more water than sorghum.
In an effort to combat the widespread production of plastic water bottles and consumption of bottled water, which often contains contaminants, a product design student from the Icelandic Academy of Arts has created a biodegradable alternative. Ari Jónsson has created an entirely natural bottle that holds its shape while full of water and yet rapidly decomposes once empty. The design combines red algae powder with water and the water within the bottle is also safe to drink.
Image credit: Pro Surfer Mary Osborn holding recovered ocean plastic on the 2010 5 Gyres SEAChange Expedition