A problem the size of Switzerland

A problem the size of Switzerland

Tracy&James | Thursday, 23 November 2017

On our saltwater trips Tracy and I get to fish some incredibly picturesque areas, in fact because we don’t mind a challenging hike (through mosquito infested swamps, miles of sharp lava rock, deep channels that require us to swim etc.) we access some spots that few others can be bothered with. Once there the effort generally pays off, often (but not guaranteed) with great fishing but almost always with a sense of ‘getting away from it all’. This feeling of being away from humanity is only ever spoiled by one thing – plastic!

The amount of plastic in the sea is incredible and the only difference between a pristine beach or flat and one strewn with litter is its orientation to the prevailing wind and tides.  I should qualify ‘pristine’ at this point as having a ‘normal’ amount of plastic debris – it’s almost impossible to find an area that is free from all litter.  I’m also talking about the plastic that is obvious to the eye rather than the less visible ‘micro’ plastics.  Most people know that the vast majority of plastics do not decompose in normal conditions, as such they essentially erode – physically tearing into smaller and smaller particles due to wave action, abrasion etc.  Once these particles are small enough they can be ingested by filter feeders, giving rise to the growing issue of plastics entering the bottom of food chain  and we all know which species is at the top.

On last week’s episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, David Attenborough commented that 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year.  I’m sure the researchers for such an epic production have done their job properly and have verified this figure as far as they can, so I’ll take it as a reasonable estimate.  That’s a lot of material!  A quick ‘back of the envelope’ type calculation shows that this amount is enough to totally cover the country of Switzerland in a plastic sheet [the unit of large area used to be the ‘Wales’ however with Brexit and inflation this has been replaced by the ‘Switzerland’.  The latter is roughly twice the area of the former].  Since the programme I’ve been thinking about my own plastic ‘usage’, pretty much every meal I eat has plastic packaging associated with it.  Actually it’s much worse than that because nearly every element of every meal has some sort of plastic wrapper or container – even the loose vegetables in the supermarket are weighed out in a polythene bag.

So what can be done about this problem?  As an individual unfortunately the answer is not a lot.  The current alternatives to non-degradable plastics are going to mean more cost to the consumer – and who is going to support paying more for their groceries and everyday items?  So plastics are going to be with us for decades to come, and each year another 8 million tonnes of it is going to be added to the oceans (in all likelihood this figure will increase).  There is one obvious thing that can be done though, however it’s controversial and unpopular – mainly because the objectors fail to acknowledgethe full disposal problem.  That solution is incineration.  Plastic is a product of the petro-chemical industry and, as such, burying it in landfill (where it escapes to the wider environment) is akin to throwing away a fossil fuel after you’ve mined and refined it - madness.  Plastics burn and this can be used to generate electrical energy in exactly the same way as a coal or oil-fired power plant.  Now burning a fossil fuel (in the form of plastic) is never going to be ‘clean’ – thereare still going to be CO2 emissions, however in this case it really is a toss-up between plastic in the ocean or a greenhouse gas going into the atmosphere.  If the power generated from burning plastic is used to replace some of that generated from oil and coal then we’re not in a much worse position, in terms of overall greenhouse gas emissions, but we are tackling the waste issue head on.

The problem with incineration is nimby-ism, i.e. not in my back yard.  As soon as any development is suggested the locals are up in arms to the extent that it’s political suicide to support such a project.  This mind-set has to change if we want to protect our oceans, the life in them and ultimately our own well-being.  So if there’s one thing an individual can do to help it’s not objecting to the building of incineration based power plants.  If it catches on, the ‘mining’ of the future could be sweeping up the oceanic gyres for fuel, and that ultimately has to be a good thing.

Sorry for the depressing FP.  Next week will be much cheerier when, if I can link it to fishing in shape or form, I’ll be discussing how the human race is doomed to extinction anyway.