Each of the major oceans has large regions of rotating currents often referred to as gyres. That rotation means that whatever gets into the gyres can stay there for a long time: Debris from the lost Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 was found months after the assumed crash — at the other end of the world.
Old-fashioned “letters in a bottle” often take years to reach shore again (surely some of us are still waiting for a response years later).
But what’s really taking up huge amounts of space in those gyres these days are not the forgotten messages in bottles or parts from lost airplanes, but plastic waste.There are five major ocean gyres, and at least three of them contain such large amounts of plastic that they have each a dedicated Wikipedia page:
Given that nearly 10 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year, it’s fair to assume that a lot of it ends up in those garbage patches. Why does this matter? Well, 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe is produced by marine plants, and much of the carbon we release in the atmosphere is taken up by the oceans. If we limit the ability of the oceans to provide us with these ecosystem services, we are pretty much literally choking ourselves.
While there are many great projects out there that aim to reduce the plastic in the oceans (we’ve covered one, the Ocean Cleanup project), most are adaptive strategies to cope with the problem, rather than attempts to ensure that the plastic doesn’t get into the oceans in the first place.
We use 40 percent of all the plastic we manufacture in packaging, and plastic bags are a huge component. In many places, it’s still commonplace to receive plastic bags for transporting groceries; often the cashier even packs everything up into several bags (sometimes even double bags). Given that we only use plastic bags for an average of 12 minutes, and that globally, only one bag in 200 is recycled on average, this is a massive problem.
What is happening to the other 199 bags, after those 12 minutes are up?
As these problems have become more apparent in recent years, and as the garbage patches in the oceans have grown, so has the awareness and willingness to deal with the waste of plastic bags. One approach gaining popularity in recent years is the prohibition or taxation of light-weight plastic bags. The idea is simple: if we are incentivised, we waste less, whether we engage with the decision consciously or not. Legislation of this kind can be found at the national as well as regional or state level (particularly in the USA).
It’s worthwhile noting the nations where such legislation is most prevalent. China, India, South Africa, Kenya, and other African countries are leading the way, even when enforcement appears to be problematic. In most Western countries, complete bans of light-weight plastic bags are rare (the exception is France). Instead, countries opt for a partial ban or taxation, which leads to sellers putting a small price on the bags, which in theory discourages consumers from purchasing them.
But is that enough? There is still a lot we can do when it comes to using less plastic in packaging on a global scale. The majority of countries do not have any legislation on this topic, even though it would reduce waste and lower carbon emissions (plastic waste equals carbon). The Paris Agreement says that developed countries should take the lead in the fight against climate change, but when it comes to plastic waste, which contributes to climate change because it is so fossil-carbon intensive, most are overlooking that promise.
If Rwanda can ban plastic bags, why can’t the rest of the Western world?