Eight million tons of waste plastic ends up in the sea each year. Fish eat it – and then we do. How bad is it for us?
Published February 14th, 2017 by The Guardian
It’s enough to make you cry over your moules frites. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year. We absorb fewer than 1%, but they will still accumulate in the body over time. The findings affect all Europeans, but, as the most voracious consumers of mussels, the Belgians were deemed to be most exposed. Britons should sympathise – last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University caused a stir when it was reported that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Now, UK supermarkets are being lobbied to create plastic-free aisles by the campaign group A Plastic Planet, as a feature-length documentary, A Plastic Ocean, is released in Britain this week.
We are finally paying attention to the pollution that has plagued our seas for years – the government is considering a refundable deposit on plastic bottles, and pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson recently switched from plastic to paper stems on its cotton buds. Evidently, there’s nothing like serving plastic up on a dinner plate to focus the mind.
Whether your national obsession is moules frites or fish and chips, this problem goes way beyond Britain and Belgium. Contaminated fish and shellfish have been found everywhere from Europe, Canada and Brazil to the coast of mainland China – and plastic-eating fish are now showing up in supermarkets. The question is no longer: are we eating plastic in our seafood? What scientists are urgently trying to establish is just how bad for us that is. Another question we might ask: how did we get here?
More than a century ago, in 1907, another Belgian, Leo Baekeland, a graduate of Ghent University, invented bakelite. It was, he later admitted, something of an accident, but this welcome development ushered in a colourful new age of plastics. Until then, we had, at great cost and effort, been manipulating products out of natural materials such as shellac, derived from beetle shells. (Charles Mackintosh’s first “mac” – which used derivatives of tar and rubber – must have been pretty pungent in a downpour.) Baekeland, who had moved to the US, saw commercial potential in an entirely synthetic replacement for shellac that would be suitable for mass production. Bakelite was lightweight, affordable, malleable and safe, but perhaps the greatest thing about the plastic Baekeland created, and those that followed, was its durability.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, innovations came thick (and thin) and fast – polystyrene, polyester, PVC, nylon. Soon, they were an inextricable part of everyday life. And then, in 1950, that scourge of the sea arrived: the throwaway polythene bag. In that decade, annual global plastic production reached 5m tonnes; by 2014, it stood at 311m tonnes – shockingly, over 40% of it for single-use packing. Now, plastic’s durability looks less of a boon than it once did. A study in Science Magazine in 2015 estimated that around 8m tonnes of plastic go into the sea each year. And, last year, a report for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (launched in 2010 by the former round-the-world sailor to promote a more circular economy) estimated that, by 2050, the volume of accumulated plastics in the oceans will be greater than that of fish.