IMAGINE A WHIRLING bowl of soup. Suspended throughout it are tiny pieces of, not pepper, but plastics. Now imagine that the bowl is 20 kilometers in diameter, and multiply that a million times. That’s roughly the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is “a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean.” (National Geographic Encyclopedia)
Most of this debris is made up of plastics because that’s the only thing that doesn’t assimilate with the environment. “Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups. “(National Geographic Encyclopedia)
The Magnitude of the Problem
“The weight of every man, woman and child on Earth is equaled by our plastic production every two years.” (Algalita)
If you just look all around you right now, you’ll probably get an idea of how much plastic we use. Most of the things around us are of plastic – from the paint on the walls to the keyboard with which I’m typing this. Why? Because it’s cheap, light weight, easy to make and transport, and un-perishable. In that last word lies the key to the problem.
Plastic doesn’t decompose. Unlike everything else on the planet, plastic doesn’t go back to the earth to be recycled and reused in a natural process. So what happens to all the trash bags, empty chips packets, disposable spoons etc. that we throw away every day? It just piles up on our landfills (“Around 10% by weight of the municipal waste stream is plastic.” (Thompson 2), or is washed away through water channels and accumulated in the oceans, to be broken down into tinier and tinier fragments by the sun. These fragments are called micro-plastics and could measure anywhere between 5 millimeters to several micrometers. These molecules just keep floating around in the water like pepper in a bowl of soup, garnishing mammoth areas of plastic soup in our beautiful oceans. And that’s not all. About twice that amount of plastic sinks to the bottom of the ocean. (National Geographic Encyclopedia)
How are plastics harmful?
- Food chain Pollution: Fishes, birds and marine mammals (over 260 species) ingest it directly. Some even mistake it as food. As it can’t be digested, it remains in their stomachs, causing ulcers and other problems and reducing their population. The problem travels up the food chain and reaches humans. There is less seafood in our restaurants, and whatever there is, is likely to be infected with plastics as well.
- Ghost-fishing: Fishing nets nowadays are also made of plastics because of their durability and low cost. But once these nets are discarded, Marine mammals (such as seals) get entangled in them and have no option except to wait for death by suffocation or starvation. This phenomenon is known as ghost-fishing.
- Depletion of Plankton: Plastics on the surface of the oceans block sunlight from reaching the plankton and algae below, causing a decrease in their populations and the populations of the fish that eat them. And the problem travels up the food chain and reaches humans.
- Release of Toxins into the Environment: Plastics both give out and absorb harmful chemicals. Different kinds of plastics contain and attract different toxins. “As plastics break down through photo degradation, they leach out colorants and chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Conversely, plastics can also absorb pollutants, such as PCBs, from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life. “(National Geographic Encyclopedia)These toxins can harm us in many ways. They have been correlated with reproductive abnormalities, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, abnormalities in liver enzymes, reduced semen quality and levels of testosterone, disruption of the endocrine system, especially the thyroid and pituitary functions. (Thompson 5-6)
- Trapping of Hydrocarbons. Plastics trap energy, causing depletion of fossil fuel reserves. (Thompson 1) The energy used up to produce, transport, and process plastics cannot be recovered, and the amount of natural gas and crude oil used as raw materials to produce plastic products remain trapped inside them.
The Problem is Exacerbating at an Alarming Rate
Think of it this way. Commodity plastics (which consists of the vast majority of plastic things we use) was discovered 63 years ago and was first commercially used 60 years ago. (Andrady). That means it took 60 years to produce and accumulate almost all the plastic on the earth that is present right now. And since plastics are so cheap, easy to produce and durable, we’re always inventing new ways of using it. “The quantity of plastics produced in the first 10 years of the current century is likely to approach the quantity produced in the entire century that preceded.” (Thompson 1) And that was predicted seven years ago.
Keeping in mind that plastic consumption is ever increasing, can you imagine what could happen in the next 60 years?
“There could be more plastics than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050.” (World Economic Forum)
Who Will Solve the Problem?
Governments in different countries are taking steps to solve the plastic problem. Our government (Bangladesh), for instance, banned the use of plastic shopping bags some years ago (though it continues to be widely used — nonetheless illegally).
When it comes to the oceans, we have a bigger problem – the oceans don’t belong to any country.
“Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. Charles Moore, the man who discovered the vortex, says cleaning up the garbage patch would ‘bankrupt any country’ that tried it.” (National Geographic Encyclopedia)
And that’s just one garbage patch.
“Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.” (National Geographic Encyclopedia)
YOU can solve the problem.
Well, the problem does seem too massive for even nations to do anything effective. What can humble you and I do?
What we can do is to start a good sunnah.
Whoever starts a good tradition which is followed [by others], then for him is [accounted] a reward, as well as the likes of the rewards of whoever follows him [in that practice], there being nothing diminished from [the followers’] rewards. And whoever starts a bad tradition which is followed[by others], then for him is [accounted] its sin, as well as the likes of the sins of whoever follows him, there being nothing diminished from [any of] their sins. (Tirmidhi)
Why Should You Care?
- Because you are a Believer, and it’s part of îmân to care about the world. The Prophet œ said,Faith has over seventy branches or over sixty branches, … the humblest of which is the removal of what is injurious from the path. (Muslim)
- Because we are responsible for our world and will be held accountable for it on the Day of Judgment.Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness]. [Sûrat Al-Rûm, 30:41]
- Because the effects of our actions do not cease after we die. They continue to burden those we leave behind. What kind of a world are we going to leave for our children?
So where do we start? Here are three simple tasks to get us started right off:
Task 1: Understand the magnitude of the problem, and your part in it.
When I was doing research for writing this article, I was shocked beyond measure, though I knew a bit about it before hand. The extent of damage we have done to this beautiful world brought tears of pain and regret to my eyes. All those plastic water bottles you and I threw away in the last ten years, whose sole purpose was to provide us with 500 ml water, have probably ended up in the stomachs of some poor albatrosses that lie painfully dying of ulcer somewhere in the Pacific.
Do some research yourself. Watch documentaries and read research reports. Remind yourself that the problem is real, and it is BIG. We tend to soon forget problems that aren’t right in front of our eyes. Keep the desire to bring a change alive in your heart by constant reminders.
Task 2: Start with disposable plastic products.
“Scientists and explorers agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (National Geographic Encyclopedia)”
Easier said than done. Limiting the use of disposable plastics entails a complete change of lifestyle. We will need to give up almost all our daily purchase items – from trash bags to toothpaste. Even a person with cast-iron willpower will find it impossible to make a complete change instantly.
The key is to make a start somewhere. Start with one or two changes and progress bit by bit. Think of plastic things that you use and dispose of most frequently, and probably use one time only. Make a resolution of replacing at least one such item with a healthy alternative. Here are some examples for you to pick and choose:
|Trash bags||Combustible grocery bags|
|Potato chips in plastic bags||Fresh French fries 🍟 in paper bags|
|Ballpens and gel pens||Fountain pens|
|Sanitary napkins||Menstrual cups|
|Disposable plates, spoons, cups etc.||Ceramic, steel, or disposable clay crockeries|
|Toothpaste and toothbrush||Miswak|
|Disposable shopping bags||Shopping baskets or jute shopping bags|
Task 3: Spread Awareness.
Use the information you gain from task 3. Educate others about the issue, starting with your family and friends. Make Facebook posters, arrange short lectures at your masjid, start a monthly road cleaning program.
Even easier – support movements that are already out there doing the job:
- Support your government’s initiatives towards a healthier country.
- Find local and online support groups.
- Find, support, donate to and volunteer for organisations working on the issue through research, spreading awareness and finding efficient solutions, for individuals, businesses, and communities. Here are three popular movements:
- Plastic Pollution Coalition: www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org, Fb/PlasticPollution
- Plastic Oceans Foundation: www.plasticoceans.org, Fb/PlasticOceans
- Algalita Marine Research & Education: www.algalita.org, Fb/Algalita
Make a start now by sharing this article!
Algalita. “The Problem.” Algalita Marine Research & Education. Itsching., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2016. <http://www.algalita.org/the-problem/>.
Andrady, Anthony L., and Mike A. Neal. “Applications and Societal Benefits of Plastics.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526 (2009): 1977–1984. PMC. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873019/>
National Geographic Encyclopedia. “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” National Geographic Society. NG, 09 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <http://nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/>.
Thompson, Richard C. et al. “Plastics, the Environment and Human Health: Current Consensus and Future Trends.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526 (2009): 2153–2166. PMC. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873021/>
World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey & Company. “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics Background to Key Statistics from the Report.” (2016): Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org>.