Ocean Action Hub

27 Feb 2017 - Plastic is woven into the fabric of our lives.

"No-one in their daily life within a period of 10 minutes isn't touching something that is made of plastic," said Professor Andrew Holmes, an emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne and a polymer chemist who has developed special plastics for flat screen TVs and solar cells.

It's used in everything from the keyboard or pen you are using, to your glasses or contact lenses, the Teflon on your frying pan, and the banknotes in your wallet. It's in your clothes, phone, car, mattress, and TV screen.

"Plastic can be flexible or rigid, and its lightness also makes it very appealing," said Professor Holmes.

But for all the benefits plastic has given us, disposing of products — particularly those designed to be used only once, such as packaging — has become a major environmental issue.

"The ocean is full of waste because humans have disposed of it carelessly," said Professor Holmes.

So how big is the problem, what happens once plastic goes into the ocean, and what can we do about it?

How much plastic goes into the ocean?

Around 8 million tonnes of plastic went into the ocean in 2010, according to the most comprehensive study of plastic pollution so far.

The international study calculated that 192 nations produced a total of 275 million tonnes of plastic waste.

The largest amount of this waste was produced by China, at 1.32 to 3.52 million tonnes. This was followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

Australia — which didn't rate in the top 20 polluters — contributed less than 0.01 million tonnes.

But that still added up to 13,888 tonnes of litter per year, a quarter of which finds its way into waterways, according to study co-author Dr Chris Wilcox of CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship.

With global production of plastic increasing exponentially, the amount of plastic finding its way into the ocean is likely to get much bigger.

"About every 11 years the amount of plastic produced doubles," said Dr Wilcox.

"To put that in other words, between now and 2028 we will produce as much plastic as we produced [from the 1950s] until now."

How long does plastic last in the ocean?

Plastic is made to be strong and durable, so it can take a long time to break down.

"Plastics are very hard materials so they are hard to break down unless you can burn them," said Professor Holmes.

"There are some you can get back to original building blocks, but not many."

These include the newer plant-based bioplastics made out of polylactic acid (PLA). But much like traditional petrochemical plastics such as Perspex, PLA-based plastics only break down under very high temperatures. CONTINUE READING: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-27/plastic-and-plastic-waste-explained/8301316 

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Publication date: 
27/02/2017
Publication Organisation: 
ABC Science
Publication Author: 
Genelle Weule
Thematic Area: 
Marine pollution
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