Science - December 1, 2011

Kicking the plastic habit

The oceans are full of floating plastic waste, activist researcher Marcus Eriksen told an audience of thirty students attending a lecture on the problem and possible solutions to it in the Forum this afternoon.

Eriksen's story is a mix of science, and consciousness-raising campaign and some exciting PR stunts. It is about measuring plastic pollution in the worst affected regions, and a rerun of the Kon-Tiki expedition in a plastic raft. He was invited to the Netherlands by the Plastic Soup Foundation to make us all more aware of the scale of plastic pollution.

Plastic archipelago
So there is a large amount of plastic floating around in the oceans, but most of it consists of small fragments and not recognizable products. Ocean currents carry the waste to five large areas where it piles up. A problem that existed long before it came to the attention of the general public in 1997. That was when captain Charles Moore, who was speaking today in Utrecht, noticed the huge Pacific garbage patch and launched an awareness-raising campaign.

The pollution has all kinds of consequences. The plastic breaks down extremely slowly and absorbs toxins. And tiny pieces of plastic are hard to distinguish from plankton, so sea creatures and birds eat them up. Once it is in the food chain plastic gives off chemicals that disturb the hormonal system. Including that of humans.
Plastic addiction
Eriksen ended his talk on an upbeat note with possible solutions. 'We have got to kick the plastic habit', he says. At present we make productions that we use only once but which are then around for a very long time. There is a need for more biodegradable plastics, and we should also collect plastic along coasts and introduce legislation to deal with the problem.