The exponential rate of development in the world, now further enhanced by the digital revolution, has placed great strain on the ecosystems of the world. That is beyond discussion.
Now, these systems, though always evolving, tend to be resilient only if given time to adapt. That is a luxury they no longer have because humankind is consuming, colonising and corrupting as many areas as it can — on land, in the sea and in the air, not to mention outer space — at any pace it can manage.
The impact of the anthropogenic age has prompted scientists into a debate on whether it is time to name our compacted period as the Anthropocene Epoch. (Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, the Dutch atmospheric chemist, popularised the word “anthropocene” around the turn of the millennium.)
Apparently, a new epoch deserves its name only to the extent that the changes that have occurred are permanent. Of course, for many, the destruction and extinction of countless species and the changing of the planet’s temperatures and climate patterns are undeniable evidence that the Earth as an ecosystem has been profoundly altered.
No doubt, optimistic as humankind tends to be — or arrogant may be a better word to describe the species — there is a common assumption that once we get our act together, we can right most wrongs, and Mother Nature will rebound as she always does.
For the less optimistic, the unbalancing of the Earth’s elementary forces means that things will get worse before they can get better. And chances are, they won’t get better. Climatic extreme events seem to occur more often now, in more extreme fashion and throughout the globe. Water levels rise, the polar caps disappear and storms occur where and when they statistically should not. One can clearly argue that this is payback, and Mother Nature is adjusting its complex forces automatically and without consideration for any specific species.
A most worrying trend, apart from these dramatic changes, is that our activities are affecting life in the oceans and the chemistry within as never before. Now, the Anthropocene Epoch is most relevant as a concept if considered through the chemical changes wrought by humankind’s reckless plundering of the planet. But more than on land and in the atmosphere, chemical changes in the oceans threaten to have a more long-ranging and more permanent impact.
In this context, the chemical change we are responsible for and that we should definitely pay attention to is our use of plastics. Chemically, plastics are “a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers such as polyethylene, PVC, nylon, etc, that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form” (Oxford Dictionaries).
In common parlance, we call something plastic if it is capable of being moulded and altered. Such a thing is highly useful in the creation of new products due to its malleability.
Now, here is the great paradox. Among consumer items, plastics in general are the least disposable of the products we humans have come up with. They don’t degrade easily, and those we put out of our sight into landfills decompose only after a millennium. Plastic bottles take half that time, generally. Plastic bags we throw away everyday take anything from 10 years to a thousand years to degrade.
Here lies the paradox. Plastics, one of the hardest things to dispose of, are used in the most throwaway disposable manner we can imagine. These go in different ways into the environment — into landfills, into the air and into the oceans.
Each year, of the six million tonnes of rubbish dumped into the oceans, 80% are plastics. It is calculated that the latter causes the death of a million sea birds and 100,000 mammals a year.
To be sure, as a species, humankind has not cared much about the advertent or inadvertent extermination of other species. But what may change our minds, and what may be Mother Nature’s way of getting back at us permanently (if one prefers that kind of perspective), is expressed by the latest buzzword in environmental studies — microplastics. We now know that most bottled water is contaminated with microplastics. What this does to the long-term health of highly mobile and very thirsty people is not really known, so the World Health Organisation has launched a health review into the matter. The findings can hardly be good.
So, what are microplastics? First off, they are considered more lethal to wildlife and to us than larger items because they get into our food chain. We are basically drinking, eating, breathing and absorbing minute pieces of plastics everyday. What they are, are firstly, teeny-weeny bits of polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polypropylene (PP) that are added to creams, soaps and toothpaste. Secondly, they are “microbeads” produced for inclusion in beauty products to act as exfoliants. And then, of course, there are the macro-plastics that break down into small bits as well. Technically, they have to be smaller than five millimetres in length to earn the title of microplastics. Being tiny, they go easily down drains into waterways and oceans. Tiny they may be, but they are becoming ubiquitous.
A recent study found that 73% of fish living at depths of 200 to 1,000 metres caught in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs. That is three in four fish! Not only does this mean that these fish act as transporters of this synthetic material to deeper waters as part of the so-called biogeochemical cycle, but as prey for humans, they enter our food chain as well. In fish, microplastics can cause inflammation and reduced feeding and weight loss. In us? We’ll soon find out.
To make matters worse, plastic fragments in the sea attract chemical pollutants and when imbibed via seafood, they transfer these toxins into predator species.
Given the fact that seafood is counted on to supply cheap protein for humanity’s endlessly growing population, we should be very concerned about the amplified effects of everything we demand and consume. Cutting down on plastic use will be vital to the survival of our, and other, species. Otherwise, we are stupidly using our kitchen as our toilet.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Merdeka for the Mind: Essays on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century.