The negative impact of plastics in our environment is worse than we thought. Earlier alarms had been sounded about plastics concentrating in large areas in oceans, though one must be cautious about how one describes it and calling them ‘giant garbage patches’ is misleading as discussed by the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige.
There is no “garbage patch,” a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. Morishige explains this misnomer
While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.
But now they are finding that plastic fibers are in the water supply all over the world and that we are ingesting it, and the long-term health consequences of doing so are not clear.
Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health.
Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media, who shared the findings with the Guardian. Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres.
The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.
European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, but this was still 72%. The average number of fibres found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.
It turns out that the nation of Rwanda is taking an extremely aggressive attitude towards curbing plastic pollution. When one thinks of Rwanda, the first thing that may come to mind is the extremely brutal genocidal civil war that engulfed the country in 1994. While that has ended, there are still concerns about the increasingly autocratic rule of its current leader Paul Kagame, the Tutsi leader whose forces won that war.
But there are some positive indicators. Rwanda leads the world in the share of women in the national legislature, though that level of equality has not as yet spread to other spheres and to everyday life. Bolivia is second, Cuba third, and the US is way down the list at 96th.
The nation has also taken some major steps towards addressing environmental concerns, such as severely restricting the use of plastic packaging and totally banning plastic bags, though the punishments for its use can seem harsh.
In Rwanda, it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like hospitals and pharmaceuticals. The nation is one of more than 40 around the world that have banned, restricted or taxed the use of plastic bags, including China, France and Italy.
The nation’s zero-tolerance policy toward plastic bags appears to be paying off: Streets in the capital, Kigali, and elsewhere across this hilly, densely populated country are virtually spotless. Adults are regularly seen on the sides of roads sweeping up rubbish, and citizens are required once a month to partake in a giant neighborhood cleaning effort, including the president.
Traffickers caught with illegal plastic may be fined, jailed or forced to make public confessions.
Smugglers can get up to six months in jail. The executives of companies that keep or make illegal plastic bags can be imprisoned for up to a year, officials say. Stores have been shut down and fined for wrapping bread in cellophane, their owners required to sign apology letters — all as part of the nation’s environmental cleanup.
It is interesting that smaller countries like Nicaragua and Rwanda are becoming leaders in different areas of environmental protections.