Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In light of the 193 UN member states represented at Rio+20, I believe we should incorporate a new nation of island states, the plastic islands. While attending the Rio+20 conference, in Riocentro, the UN conference arena, I interviewed people involved in the recycling and cleaning process of the event.
From the approximate seventy cubic meters of recycling captured each day at the conference, which lasted for fourteen days, about twenty percent of the total recyclable material was plastic in nature, paper being the majority.
Only about 35-40% of total plastic recovered from the actual event, such as plastic bottles, was actually captured by the workers and taken to recycling cooperatives in Rio, such as Coop Cal and Coop Rio Oeste. The remaining plastic was mixed in with other residues, such as food material, whose final destinations are haphazard landfills of Rio.
The first study conducted on marine plastic pollution in the South Atlantic was spearheaded by the 5 Gyres Institute (who partnered with The United Nations Safe Planet Campaign during Rio+20 Summit) from late 2010 to early 2011. Here, a group of scientist and researchers sailed from Ilha Grande, Rio, to Cape Town, South Africa (3350 miles).
During their trip they collected hundreds of samples of plastic debris to study the density, distribution and ecological impacts of plastic pollution on the Atlantic, and it was confirmed the presence of a “garbage patch,” or oceanic gyre.
In total, there are five plastic gyres in the world, one in each of the five major oceans. Ilha Grande, a paradise retreat to many Cariocas and Paulistas, has a sister island near its high seas made-up of plastics.
It has been estimated that as much as 723 million kilos of plastic end up in the oceans every year.
The average Carioca produces about one kilo of “garbage” a day, and only about 3-5 percent of this material is recycled at landfills, if the waste actually gets to the landfill. In many cases waste and plastics are improperly disposed and wind up in the ocean.
Plastics are the dominant type of debris in the marine environment found in the form of ubiquitous plastic fragments knows as “microplastics.” Sunlight reduces plastics to small pieces, which now cover about 25 percent of earth’s surface according to the 5 Gyres Institute.
Issues to marine life include ingestion and entanglement as well as transport of invasive species to other continents. Plastics absorb chemicals from the seawater (including Persistent Organic Pollutants like PCBs, PAHs, HCH, DDT, other pesticides) at rates of thousands to sometimes millions the proportions in the ambient seawater.
Once ingested by fish, the plastic releases chemicals into tissue and can transmit them to humans. POPs have been known to cause cancers, reproductive harm and disrupt human hormones and endocrine system.
Plastics don’t biodegrade but rather photodegrade. Plastics are relatively new industrial products and their entire lifecycle is not fully understood. For example, a plastic bottle may not biodegrade for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
There are two kinds of biodegradables: PLA, and PHA. PLA, the corn, sugarcane, etc., based plastics we commonly see in the marketplace, are not marine degradable, and are thereby not a solution in terms of ocean pollution. Moreover, biodegradable plastics in composting operations can potentially add unwanted chemicals to the end product, in this case, composting material.
PHA (sugar based) is marine degradable, and may be a more promising solution when it is more commercially available. There are only a few companies making PHA plastic yet. In Brazil, with the highest biodiversity count in the world, many scientists are looking at bacterium alternatives to breakdown plastic.
Consumers can do something about this problem by using less disposable plastics, reusing materials, using their own water bottles and coffee mugs and simply being conscious of the plastic around them.
To find more about plastic in our seas: www.5gyres.org
Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Policy in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, where he works with environmental detective services throughout the metropolitan area.