For as long as human beings have lived on Earth, we have been steadily contributing to the eventual demise of the planet we call home. Pollution of the Earth’s atmosphere and the very air we breathe through extensive carbon emissions has been a prevalent topic on the international political stage for several years. However, this alone is not the only way we are killing our planet. We decimate forests to advance our economic standing. By making space for the ever-expanding human population, we sacrifice fragile ecosystems that are home to the millions of different species we share this Earth with. A sacrifice that we shouldn’t have the authority to make. This destruction of ecosystems is not exclusive to land however. Our oceans have been on the receiving end of consistent pollution throughout human history. From plastic shopping bags and plastic bottles being washed down storm drains to illegal plastic waste disposal by global or even local corporations and businesses. While incorrectly disposed plastics are not the only thing polluting our oceans, it counts for approximately 80% (1) .
The waste that humans produce has been increasing at a rate even greater than that of human population growth. A very large portion (60% of the 80% mentioned above) of this waste consists of man-made ‘disposable’ plastic products such as: Plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic wrappers, plastic bottles, so on and so forth. These products are completely alien to the planet and would not exist were humans not here. Therefore, they are incredibly destructive to the environment. Unfortunately, the ocean and its currents seem to be working against us. Ocean currents carry the floating plastics and create humungous revolving water systems full of plastic, known as gyres. These gyres are spread over a massive are of ocean, millions of square kilometres in fact and is incredibly hard to collect since it is constantly rotating.
Additionally, floating plastics are not the whole problem, large amounts of plastic waste do not float and rests on the sea floor. Plastic is not a biodegradable material and as a result, never truly goes away. It is said that a plastic bottle can last for some 450 years in a marine environment (2), slowly fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces, never truly disappearing, however microscopic it may be. Furthermore, as these plastics degrade, they release chemicals that can be incredibly toxic to marine wildlife if ingested. The ingestion of the plastics themselves along with the toxins contained within has led to the devastation of marine wildlife across the globe. Additionally, many believe that this issue is being overshadowed by the prevalent focus on global warming and climate change in the contemporary political sphere. Regardless of this perceived overshadowing, we can all agree that the amount of resources being put towards the resolution of these issues is grossly disproportional to their size and impact on the planet.
The state of modern politics maintains a heavy focus on the sovereignty and power of nations, be it hard, soft or smart. Major nations remain engaged in an indefinite battle on the political stage and sadly, this results in a lack of focus on issues that can be considered to be far more pertinent, based on the fact that they concern the immediate future of the planet and the longevity of the human species. However that being said, major nations have begun to properly address the issue of the massive environmental destruction that comes as a result of global industry. They have done this through the research, development and implementation of cleaner sources of power (Solar, wind, hydroelectric, etc) on a nationwide level, in an attempt to halt the rapid depletion of finite energy sources that harm the environment such as fossil fuels (coal). Returning to the point I made earlier, other than make the dumping of waste into marine environments illegal, no significant action has been taken to properly halt the rise of plastics pollution, which in my opinion, is a problem of equal importance to that of the environmental destruction outlined earlier.
Based on this research and my personal feelings on the matter, I saw an opportunity to raise awareness to this issue in my local community. While on a far smaller level than the politics mentioned above I believe that local awareness to the marine pollution problem plays a large part in the eventual resolution of the overlying problem. We have seen that this is the case through the successes of small parties such as Boyan Slat, a 23-year-old Dutch pioneer in the purification of our oceans. He was diving in Greece when he was 16 and said that he saw more plastic bags than fish. He desired to do something about it and designed an ocean cleaning system for a school project. Overtime he gained attention from the world and now has the opportunity to work with professionals to try and make his designed system to solve the gyre problem a reality. This story particularly inspired me as it showed that no matter how small the organisation, a difference can always be made.
The lack of focus on the plastic pollution problem was especially apparent to me in my own country. Beyond small activist organisations running clean-up operations, there are hardly any major government linked and funded operations or incentives to assist in the solution of this problem. Considering that South Africa contains a very large stretch of coastline (the entire southern coastline of Africa) spanning two oceans (Indian and Atlantic), I believe that this issue should be quite high up on the priority list. The current state of South African politics makes it incredibly difficult to focus on environmental issues such as this. With poverty, crime, and corruption all over the country, environmental issues progressively fall down the list of prioritisations. However, recently, Cape Town went through a massive water shortage.
This shows that environmental issues should never be overlooked as they can have devastating effect. Based on the way that the government dealt with the problem, some saying that it was used by certain political parties to gain power, the responsibility of making the pertinence of these issues clear to the government may need to fall into the hands of non-governmental entities.
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