Our reliance on petroleum and fossil fuels is now taking an enormous, largely unaccounted for toll on human and environmental health and the sustainability of the ecosystems that underlie and support human society, and not just in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change.
Rather than one of scarcity, the history of oil production is perhaps more accurately characterized as one of persistent over-abundance. Amidst recurring booms and busts and the rush to cash in on their discoveries, oil companies tasked an untold number of chemists with inventing new petroleum-based products. Prominent among them, synthetic plastics are leaving an indelible mark in the Earth’s geologic history.
Famously alluded to in the 1967 "New Age" film classic, The Graduate, we are now literally swimming in a sea of plastic refuse, so much so that the United Nations (UN) has declared war on ocean plastic.
An unending stream of plastic waste
It’s estimated that some 5 billion tons of plastic has been produced since Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland produced the world’s first synthetic polymer, or plastic – dubbed Bakelite – from a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde in 1907. Paleontologist Jan Zalasiewicz has calculated that at current rates and given no increase in recycling by 2040 there will be enough plastic in our environment to cling wrap the earth six times over.
More generally, plastics are defined as polymers – long chains of molecules containing a mix of different elements chemically bound together. All plastics are made of carbon and essentially all synthetic, man-made plastics to date are derived from oil (petroleum), though biopolymers or bioplastics are derived from naturally occurring materials.
According to recent, best estimates, more than 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans each year – the equivalent of a garbage truckload every minute. As InterPress Service’s Baher Kamal highlights in a February 23 report, all that plastic waste is “wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, and costing at least $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems.”
The Clean Seas Campaign
In response, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) on February 23 launched a global campaign to eliminate use of micro-plastics in cosmetics and production of single-use plastic by 2022.
Dubbed the Clean Seas Campaign, UNEP and campaign partners are aiming very high indeed: their ultimate goal is to end marine litter, period. Joining Nairobi, Kenya-based UNEP are some of the world’s leading multinational corporations, the same companies that have long relied on synthetic plastics to manufacture their products, heretofore without taking into account the effects of their disposal into the environment.
One such company includes Dell Computers. Joining the Clean Seas Campaign, Dell announced the launch of a commercial supply chain that will make use of plastic fished out of the sea near Haiti. More broadly, the computer giant will make use of recovered ocean plastic in its product packaging. Around 1/3 of plastic produced today is used for packaging, UNEP highlights.
Celebrities are joining UNEP and Dell in the Clean Seas Campaign. "Whether we choose to use plastic bags at the grocery store or sip through a plastic straw, our seemingly small daily decisions to use plastics are having a dramatic effect on our oceans. We have the power to effect change," actor and TV star Adrian Grenier said. Grenier is founder of the Lonely Whale Foundation.
Changing consumer habits and product manufacturing-value chains
Grenier and Clean Seas Campaign partners are urging people the world over to be more conscious of their shopping habits, consumption, and attitudes towards waste disposal.
"Today I take this public pledge to do my part to refuse single use plastics, starting with the plastic straw, and also reaffirm my commitment to work with leaders such as Dell to reduce plastic packaging,” Grenier continued. “If we start with one small change and hold each another accountable, I believe that together we can inspire global action for the health of our oceans."
UNEP expects to make some “major announcements” regarding the Clean Seas Campaign during The Ocean Conference at UN Headquarters in New York City June 5-9, as well as during the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi this December.
No doubt, we as shoppers and consumers have a big role to play, as well as an obligation, to help realize the Clean Seas Campaign’s goals. Ultimately, the root cause of our collective failure to address this issue is one of laziness, apathy, and “lust for lucre.” Our unwillingness to factor waste disposal and insist that the materials used to manufacture products be readily biodegradable – so-called “cradle to cradle” product cycles – has led us to this critical juncture in human and earth history.
*Images credit: 1) Clip from "The Graduate" via YouTube; UNEP