It can take hundreds of years for plastic to degrade alone, but nature may already have answers to our problem. For some organisms, plastic debris offers a food source; for many others, a literal life raft. When 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, some of it provides a home to entire biological communities.
There are more than 170 trillion plastic particles – with a combined weight of over 2.33 million tonnes – currently floating in the world’s oceans. Today, plastic marine debris is found in all five major ocean gyres, and in the Southern Ocean. Gyres are areas of large circulating ocean currents that act like a vortex, causing floating waste to be gently drawn into their core.
The WHO estimates that one in six people will experience infertility in their lifetime. Further, we have seen a dramatic decrease of almost 50% in both male sperm count and female conception rates in the past 50 years. This decrease can be largely attributed to our increasing exposure to chemicals in our environment known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.
Our environment cannot bounce back from major petrochemical contamination, on top of the constant flow of waste from agriculture, textile factories and our homes. The cheap and easy approach to dealing with waste has been to simply bury it, which is unsustainable, especially as chemicals inevitably leech out into soils and waters. While thermal desorption removes contaminants, it also kills the soil. The best solution is bioremediation.
As a custodian species of the planet’s ecosystems, we have become disconnected from our responsibilities, attending to the patterns that build the complex web of life. Our activities and waste products are disrupting ecosystems, impacting the reproductive success of other animals. Pharmaceutical waste can persist even in the most remote places on the planet, including Antarctica. But it’s not all bad news, particularly if we pay attention to where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.