All About Green

The Multi-faced Plastic Tragedy

Apr 2023
Author: Green Power
A bag of disposed plastic water bottles

According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), globally at least 1.4 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean every year. This accounts for 80% of all marine waste. As we all know, plastic is hard to decompose. Have you ever pondered what all the plastic waste in the oceans becomes in the end? In fact, the plastic legacy in nature is more complicated than we can imagine. Apart from the ocean environment, plastic is invading nature in various ways that make it difficult to clean up and leave a profound impact.

In 2016, strange blue crystals were found on rocks on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Not quite sure what the crystals were, scientists used equipment to analyse and identify them as mainly polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).These “plasticrusts” were believed to be plastic debris that had floated to the rocky shore and become encrusted onto the rock surface upon constant beating by the ocean waves, and sunlight. The consequence is that harmful chemical substances would be continuously released. If algae grow on these “plasticrusts”, other coastal organisms will also likely ingest them as they feed on the algae. The plastic will eventually enter the upper level of the food chain.

© Hcirllej @ wikipedia

In the early days, or even now in lesser developed regions, people commonly burn plastic waste. With the heat, “pyroplastics” are formed, which upon weathering will become stone-like. These “plastic stones” cannot be easily fragmented and will exist in nature even longer than ordinary plastic waste. Worse still, the “plastic stones” can float, and may become “carriers” of invasive species, pathogens and viruses. In such cases, severe ecological disasters may happen.

Burning plastic waste also allows the plastic to integrate with sand, shells, coral debris and wood, forming a high-density rocky matter which scientific term “Plastiglomerate”. The heavy matter usually submerges in water and cause damages to the sea bed.

© Aaikevanoord @ wikipedia

No plastic to save the world and ourselves

Some plastic waste will be brought to the heart of the oceans by sea currents, and form sedimentary rocks when combined with sand and rocky materials under water pressure. This kind of plastic waste is locked in the rocky structures, which causes less harm to the environment.

Recently, scientists also discovered “Plastitar”, which is plastic waste combined with oil pollutants from ships. Plastitar sticks to rock surfaces permanently, and the foul smell is less acceptable to coastal organisms, hence the ecological impacts are less severe.  

All the various forms of plastic waste pose adverse impacts to humans and the environment. The risks are beyond our recognition. In many places around the world, legislation and education are used to “remove plastic” from our daily lives. In Hong Kong, hopefully starting from the fourth quarter of 2023, we will in stages prohibit the provision of disposable cutlery in restaurants and the sale and free distribution of disposable plastic products such as glow sticks and umbrella bags. Saying no to plastic is a world wide trend. It is even more a necessary step to save ourselves from eventual extinction!