Once Upon A Planet

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The tale of a few plastic bottles

There was once a plastic bottle thrown out. During a storm the wind blew it into the river, and a few days later it arrived into the sea. Very happy to finally see the wide ocean, it drifted slowly following the currents and the wind, until it arrived in a tranquil patch of water. Later it was joined by another bottle for a bit of company. This was then followed by another one, and an other one, and an other one... Soon there would be millions of bottles at sea. Not so tranquil anymore.

 This story is unfortunately a sad reality. Some amazing figures:

  • Global production of plastics is estimated at 225 million tonnes per year. That's about 32 kg for each inhabitant of the planet. Said otherwise: we consume half our weight in plastic each year.
  • As an example, an unbelievable 19 million single-use carrier bags are given out daily in England. That's 130 carrier bags on average per person each year.
  • It is estimated that a staggering 6.4 million tons of garbage reach the marine environment every year. That's nearly 1 kg of garbage for any one of us.
  • Estimates suggest that there are currently over 13,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on every square kilometre of ocean.


How is this possible?

There are two elements here. The first is obviously that we consume and throw an insane amount of plastic in the nature. The second is the inherent properties of plastic.

Plastic doesn't degrade easily. The longevity of plastic is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of years, but is likely to be far longer in some conditions.

The ocean surface is crossed by a complex network of currents. Some of these currents form large circular patterns: the gyres. Due to these currents and winds, the floating debris are slowly pushed to the centre of the gyres where they are trapped for what we can consider forever. This led to the infamous Great Pacific garbage patch and North Atlantic garbage patch.

The major ocean-wide gyres (Author: NOAA, Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The major ocean-wide gyres (Author: NOAA, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To see this in action, there is a very nice toy tool prepared by the University of New South Wales which calculates the path of detritus in the sea: place your rubber duckies on the map, and see where they will travel up over time.

The unfortunate consequences

Large plastic debris pose considerable threat by choking and starving wildlife. This is the most visible consequence, with regular reports of animal being trapped by discarded fishing nets or six-packs plastic rings making the news. These are also the more visible rubbish when walking along a shoreline.

There is however a more insidious effect of plastic rubbish. Due to the sun's UV rays, the plastic tends to get brittle and ends up fragmented in very small pieces: microplastic. This microplastic is only a few millimetres long, and is therefore difficult to see and to clean. It is also sadly often ingested by wildlife that mistake it for prey, leading to their death (turtles and birds are notorious examples, such as the famous picture by Chris Jordan).

 The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick in the Pacific includes plastic marine debris fed to the chick by its parents. (Author: Chris Jordan, Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick in the Pacific includes plastic marine debris fed to the chick by its parents. (Author: Chris Jordan, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, when it decomposes, plastic leaches potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A, PCBs, and derivatives of polystyrene (all nice stuff known to cause cancer). If the animal survives, the chemicals can be passed through the food chain. And guess who is at the end of the food chain?

After looking today at the issue of plastic litter, we will look in the next article at some solutions. And it involves you.


If you are interested in learning more on this subject, here are some useful resources:

What this is


One never baths twice in the same river, one never climbs the same mountain again. Everything is constantly flowing through time, evolving, and therefore unique.

This is the gift of life that we each have a unique experience of the world. Every moment needs to be appreciated, treasured. Through photography we clumsily attempt to extract that tiny slice of life, that magic moment, and put it in a square box before it flies away.

This site is a testimony to what happened once ... upon a planet

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