by Steve

You might have heard about the plastic waste choking the words oceans, but you might not have seen what it is and where it comes from. That might be a good thing too, because encountering waste plastic in what should be a pristine marine environment is a shocking experience.

At sunset, the picturesque tropical beach somewhere in South East Asia is crowded with people just as the restaurants set their tables on the sand for the evening rush. And it would be the perfect setting to enjoy a meal of fresh seafood if not for the fact that last night there was a big rain that picked up every piece of rubbish in its path; floating it into drains, creeks and waterways before flushing it straight into the bay. Then, less than 12 hours later, some of it had been washed back to shore littering the beach, the rest of it already heading away from land toward the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Meanwhile as the sun begins its slide toward the horizon a few locals pick through the rubbish for items that can be recycled. They fill big bags of bottles and cans and other useful materials they can turn into income, but their noble actions make no dent on the amount of plastic strewn across the beach. A closer inspection shows why. The remaining rubbish literally has no value. The litter on the beach is almost exclusively lightweight non-recyclable material; plastic bags, food wrapping and product packaging.

The plastic is already in small pieces but some of it is now being torn into smaller pieces and blown by the wind back inland to repeat this cycle in the next rain. Some of it blankets dead fish washed up on the shore, fuelling suspicion that the rubbish might be the cause. And the detritus in the path of the incoming tide is being washed back out, visible as a translucent sheen on the water. Once out in the deep ocean it will break right down into an invisible sludge that floats on the surface.

No one needs to be told how important plastic products are to our modern way of life. By the same token, no one needs to be told how our dependence on disposable packaging is damaging the environment. Yet its not until you see the lifestyle we take for granted washing back up at your feet that you realise the magnitude of the problem. We created that plastic, we only used it once but it will now remain in our environment forever.

A study released this week estimates 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. If only the desire to rid the world of this wastefulness was as enduring as the plastic itself.