Most people who love the ocean also know about the threats to its livelihood. They have seen the disturbing images of turtles and other marine animals tangled up and suffocating in plastic. The question is: How does plastic end up in their habitat in the first place? To understand this, we have to look to where plastic is being used: on land.
Made for the moment, here to stay
Plastic is often the default choice for packaging of all kinds. It is lightweight, cheap and versatile. It helps to keep food fresh, clothing elastic and cosmetics wrapped up. However, especially in the case of packaging, plastic is often used only once. This type of plastic is called single-use plastic. Immediately after consumption we throw the packaging away. It served its purpose and after that it becomes worthless to the consumer.
What happens next to the packaging is strongly determined by where the consumer lives. Consumers in developed countries are used to sorting different types of waste into different types of bins. They might collect all their used plastics in a bin which is regularly emptied, either on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The situation looks completely different in other parts of the world where these waste management systems do not exist.
The business of waste
Waste management is a very expensive activity. In developed countries it is usually paid for by either the companies responsible for the waste, by taxpayers’ money or by waste management fees charged per household. In developing countries none of these options are readily available. Brands are usually not required to pay for the waste they put into the market, tax money available to cities is scarce as society is not as wealthy as in developed countries and for this reason private households are reluctant to pay for waste management services themselves.
More than two billion people around the world are not connected to a waste management system in any way. This means that waste is often burned in backyards or thrown onto the streets.
The common way of household waste disposal in many developing countries
Waste discarded on the side of the road
Sometimes, waste is collected but it is not segregated. It all ends up in the same bin. It is then disposed of in huge landfills where all different types of materials and wastes are mixed. You could find organic waste, old plastics, batteries and sanitary products – all in the same place.
Open burning of landfills
These landfills are usually not very well managed. In the worst-case waste is dumped onto open ground, without protecting the groundwater underneath from getting polluted. This is what we call unmanaged waste. The consequences of this are dire: As the waste volumes become too large, people either put the landfills on fire to reduce the volumes or the landfills self-ignite due to chemical processes, emitting toxic gasses into the environment thus adding to the already rampant pollution.
Waste as a source of income
Landfills are not only hotspots for pollution but also serve as a source of income for millions of people in the developing world. How many people live off waste is unknown as these workers operate informally. Certain materials that consumers in developed countries see as worthless still are of value to them. For example, metals, paper and cardboard and certain types of plastic like bottles or other hard plastics can be turned into money. Informal workers collect them from landfills and sell them to scrap-traders who then sell them to local recycling businesses. These materials are often used for down-cycling application as they are too contaminated to be turned back into packaging.
Informal collection point for scrap materials
Aggregated plastic bottles ready to be sorted and sold to recycling companies
Other materials however cannot be repurposed or recycled. This is the case for so-called flexible plastics or multi-layer plastics which contain more than one material type. A typical example would be a chips bag which has a metal inner layer and a plastic outer layer. This type of packaging is extremely light weight. It only needs a gust of wind or heavy rainfall to carry it away from the landfill. The heavy rains of the monsoon season especially wash away a lot of plastic.
Plastic being washed away by heavy rainfall
The rain carries the plastic down the streets and roads in streams from where it is washed into sewage systems or big rivers.
Plastic accumulating in sewage systems
Once in the big rivers it is only a matter of time until the plastic reaches lakes or the ocean. According to latest studies around 90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just ten rivers.
The key lesson from this article: Not all countries have the same possibilities for recycling and waste management. If they lack these systems, plastics often end up in landfills from where the rain carries them to rivers and oceans.