This is the first story in a series of three by Akilah Stewart.
SWIRLING, tumbling, and bubbling around the vast blue ocean, there are millions of marine animals living their best life. When you think of the Caribbean Sea, you imagine a dazzling array of fish, coral, bejewelled coasts and breathtakingly beautiful whales.
Marine animals exist just like we do, with little babies, grannies and all the family members in between. They are also an important source of food for us and for other marine animals. But times are changing.
Overharvesting of marine resources to meet increasing population demands has meant marine animal populations have declined drastically in recent years. All the while, the global production of plastics is increasing and affecting our marine space, cluttering it up with garbage.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
This is troubling because plastics are also hazardous to marine animals. They float, so they appear to be swimming like other marine organisms. The take a long time to breakdown—scientists estimate around 450 years. Also, due to their colourful shapes, sizes, translucent-aquatic like appearances and abundance, they are increasingly being mistaken for food. Plastics poison or choke hundreds of sea birds, sharks, fish, turtles and other wildlife yearly.
In 2017 at the United Nations Ocean Conference in New York, it was said that 100,000 marine creatures die from entanglement in plastics, and approximately a million sea birds die plastic-related deaths every year. These issues seem remote because they are occurring far away from us in the ocean, but TT are islands, so these issues affect us significantly and will affect future generations.
There are also rising concerns over eroded plastic pieces, called microplastics (microbeads, microfibres and nanoplastics) in the environment. These weathered plastic fragments, which can look like colourful grains of sand or barely visible plastic fibres, are being swallowed by animals and find their way up the food chain into the seafood that we eat. Preliminary findings have suggested that microplastics are ingested by marine life in TT waters.
The plastic problem is also a chemical one, as these synthetic materials are made of a range of substances with either questionable or proven toxicity.
Contrary to popular belief, not all plastics are reusable. Some plastics explicitly state “for one-time use.” However, we often ignore these labels and reuse these plastics indefinitely or until they have visibly broken down.
Why is an awareness of this important?
I went about trying to examine some of the items I use daily that contain plastic, and through my research, discovered that some plastics are not meant to be reused. This is because they begin to break down and can contaminate or seep into the product they were meant to hold. On most plastic products there is a basic numeric guide (1-7). This guide is used to classify the plastic, based on its type and re-usability. This designation helps in the recycling process but can also be used to give a picture of potential harmful effects of the repeated use of some of these plastics.
I have observed that the 5-gallon plastic bottle of a popular brand of bottled water is rated seven – which an online search indicates can contain: “Other plastics, such as BPA, Polycarbonate and Lexan.”
Though it is not stated which type of plastic this company’s bottles are made from, it should be noted that BPA, short for bisphenol A is a controversial chemical. Some studies have identified it as a hormone disruptor. As a result, many products now advertise they are BPA-free.
Currently, thousands of 5-gallon bottles of water are drunk in TT.
I contacted the company for more information, but was unable to get any clear answers, as I was referred from department to department on three occasions.
I observed more recently that these bottles are being phased out for 25-gallon water bottles of the number 1 category: Polyethylene terephthalate.
An online search showed type 1 plastics are intended for single use — yet these bottles are refillable.
What were and are the consequences of thousands of people reusing and drinking from these bottles over the number of years the public has been exposed to them? What redress does the public have if items such as these are deemed unsafe?
What you can do
Plastic and waste in general can only be addressed if we rethink single use and what is an acceptable amount of waste.
Failure to do so is to the detriment of the environment which sustains us.
Some actions you can take are:
make signs for your river, park or school, as environmental education is something that should never stop
recycle plastics and encourage waste management in your area
research products that you buy for your family
ask companies and suppliers for clarification on products that may be a health concern.
abroad, some schools and institutions are making themselves plastic-free by entirely eliminating the use of three or more single-use items.
Social media, videos and hashtags are means of spreading greater awareness. Here are some I came upon or made up while writing this article #mylastplasticstraw, #myplasticfreesea, #fastfood-metalfork, #carryyourcutlery, #lessplasticisfantastic, #saynotostyrofoam and #plasticfootprint2019.
Akilah Stewart is a PhD candidate in environmental biology in the Department of Life Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology, UWI, St Augustine. She has worked in the area of water resources management throughout the Caribbean over the past ten years.