Single-Use Plastic


The problem of plastics in our oceans is a global one.

It’s a subject we are very aware about because we see plastic every where we travel: we’ve seen Komodo dragons on beautiful beaches wading through thick piles of plastic. We’ve come up from dives having to push a literal incoming tide of plastic trash away as we reach the surface. We’ve seen plastic bags, stuck on beautiful corals 30 feet deep, wafting in gentle ocean currents. We’ve seen marine wildlife choking on, getting strangled by, and entangled in plastic. We see plastic floating as we cruise along the coast. And we know there is much more plastic, broken into smaller pieces we can’t see, floating throughout the water column from the surface down to the depths.

The fight against single-use plastics (and plastic pollution) is a compelling and holistic one when we realize that good choices in renewable energy and climate friendly decisions may also help reduce single-use plastic production and pollution, and vice versa.

Plastic enters the ocean at an alarming rate: it’s dumped in the sea by truckloads, falls off ships, gets blown in off the land by the wind, carried downstream into the ocean via rivers & streams, or chucked in by people. Over time, the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually, they turning into teeny particles (because plastic doesn’t disappear) called “microplastics” that are smaller than 5 millimeters.

Some plastic sink to the bottom (it’s been found in the deepest parts of the ocean), some remains suspended in the water column, and there is also a portion that remains afloat.

The oceans are constantly moving due to the rotation of the earth and the prevailing winds. There are five large rotating ocean currents, called gyres. (gyre is pronounced like “liar” but with a “j” instead of an “l”)

These gyres are large systems of circulating ocean currents that have a significant impact on the ocean. They circulate waters around the globe, affecting our weather & climate. As they circulate and slowly whirl, the gyres pull in floating debris. All five of the ocean gyres have an increased concentration of plastic waste compared to other parts of the oceans.

Trapped within these gyres are a high concentration of plastic waste. But they don’t look like huge islands of plastic floating (“garbage patches”) and swirling around the sea’s surface.

There is no visible floating mass of plastic waste in the middle of the ocean. Such misunderstandings persist, but pollution in the gyres is really an increased concentration of plastic that is, for the most part, in very small pieces. It’s like a soup made up of all sorts and sizes, from big pieces down to practically microscopic pieces, of plastic that slowly breaks into ever smaller particles.

Garbage patches are those areas where, in the gyre, an increased concentration of marine debris accumulates. The most publicized garbage patch is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre in the northern Pacific Ocean. However, there are actually several garbage patches located in gyres around the world!

So, what’s the problem with all of this floating, circulating, deteriorating plastic?

Floating plastic, from larger pieces the size of bags or bottles down to microscopic pieces, are mistaken as food items by marine mammals, birds, and fish who feed upon these plastics – and die. Huge whales, ancient sea turtles, magnificent seabirds, and fish are just some of the animals often killed by ingesting plastics.

It’s not just the plastic the animals swallow, or get entangled in, that kills them. The plastic itself is toxic.

Plastic is traditionally made from petroleum byproducts. That means it contains compounds that are detrimental to the health of ecosystems in which it ends up. It contains chemicals that are harmful to living creatures, including humans. Plastic in the U.S. is now most commonly sourced from the nation’s production of “abundant and affordable” natural gas. Natural gas liquids (NGLs) – ethane and propane – get extracted and sent to a “cracking facility.” Here, ethane is made into ethylene (the foundation of polyethylene—the most common plastic in the world, frequently used for packaging, bottles and synthetic clothing). At a a “dehydrogenation plant,” propane is made into propylene (the foundation of polypropylene—a plastic commonly found in food packaging and vehicle manufacturing).

Plastic pollution is an issue that demands worldwide cooperation, similar to climate change. They are two sides of the same coin. As a product of extracting and refining fossil fuels for energy, the amount of plastic produced is influenced by the demand for and production of oil and gas. Industry analyses find that the production of plastics from fossil fuel is only cost effective when the components not used for plastics are used for energy production, treating plastic more as a byproduct of the industry. Therefore, if we transition away from fossil fuels, and towards renewable energy and a healthy climate, we also encourage industry to transition away from producing wasteful single-use plastics.

“Plastics manufacturers assume demand for disposable plastics will continue to rise, despite evidence that global awareness of plastic pollution is growing and cultural attitudes are changing. Industry investments reflect a further underlying assumption that supplies of cheap hydrocarbons will remain the norm for decades to come, even as the global community has begun to phase out the very fossil fuels upon which plastics producers depend.”

— Excerpt from Center for International and Environmental Law

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