Environment: A plastics plague

Indiscriminate use and cavalier disposal is a guarantee that plastics will soon achieve the notoriety of tobacco

 

The evidence showing the extent to which plastics are persisting in the environment has become overwhelming. That includes indications from Irish research showing how plastics are taking an insidious toll on our seas, with increasing indications of a grave risk to fish, birds and mammals. No one yet knows the health impact on humans from ingesting plastics. Given their pervasiveness and warning signs provided by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent. A US study in July put a global estimate on the amount of plastic in circulation at eight billion tonnes. That’s enough to cover the entire territory of Argentina, and most of the material now resides in landfills or the natural environment, notably oceans.

Researchers at NUI Galway, led by Dr Audrey Morley, this month showed a dramatic increase in microplastics – tiny plastic pollutants – contaminating the entire western Irish continental shelf, with “detrimental repercussions” for marine life. Another recent US study showed sea salt around the world has been contaminated, adding to fears that microplastics are becoming ubiquitous in the environment and finding their way into the food chain via salt in our diets.

Speaking at an event hosted by Repak recycling last week, environmental scientist Dr Tara Shine said the world had to change to sustainable consumption given that “almost every piece of plastic still exists”. The standard plastic toothbrush has a lifespan of up to 10,000 years, she observed.

Plastics are remarkably functional and convenient materials, essential to safe food production, transportation and even medicine, so much so that calls for their elimination are unrealistic. There is, however, a need to have a more critical examination of their use, and above all to find more sustainable end-of-life management strategies.

Indiscriminate use and cavalier disposal is a guarantee that they will soon achieve the notoriety of tobacco. But in this instance the damage will be much more far-reaching, and stretch to every corner of the Earth.

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