The grim legacy of the plastic fantastic

While the waste is very much a talking point this week it is fitting that small practical inroads into the problem, like a push to ban plastic shopping bags in Ballarat, are back on the agenda.

Some of the figures are staggering; each plastic bag is used for an average of just 12 minutes  and six billion are thrown into landfill nationally each year. Many of these essentially petro-chemical products will take hundreds of years to break down and even then become a long lasting problem for soil contamination. Everything has a consequence and this is a particularly poisonous legacy of the consumer generation. It is no wonder landfill costs are skyrocketing ; a cost that we all pay through rates and waste levies.

Then of course there are all the bags that are improperly disposed of; an estimated 80 million of them that end up as litter. That is a potential 80 million choking hazards for wildlife and 80 million slowly degrading items clogging up the food cycle with toxic material.

University of Tasmania’s  Research scientist Jennifer Lavers argues the true longevity of the problem centres around the fact most elements of plastic, which end up in the ocean, don't ever break down; ”Every piece of petrochemical-derived plastic ever made still exists on the planet.”

That frightening prospect has demonstrable proof in the distant Henderson Island which has the dubious honour of having the highest density of plastic debris reported anywhere on the planet. 17 tonnes of plastic or 38 million pieces of debris has washed up with more than 3,570 new pieces of litter arriving every day on one beach alone.

Henderson Island is located more than 5,000 kilometres from the nearest major population centre showing the plastic bag we carelessly throw here could end up in the most remote parts of the world. Other research estimates there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the top 10 centimetres of the world’s oceans. What this means for fish life and the fish we eat is scary.

What form a ban or restriction takes is yet to be decided but the urgency is obvious.  A plastic bag ban may only be one small step to curb the plastic frenzy of the last fifty years but in its effort to prompt behaviour change through necessity, it may have a massive cumulative effect in the long term. Moreover it is the step where every individual can be part of the solution.  A small step but one the future will thank us for.