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Is Plastic the Bad Apple or not?

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English Matters - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 1/2020 vom 29.11.2019
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Look around and you’ll see that plastic is everywhere, from the food packaging we buy to the computers we work with and the cars we drive. Unfortunately, much of the plastic we go through daily is used only once and then thrown away. In the end, most of it ends up in our rivers, seas and oceans, posing a serious threat to the survival of not only marine life but our own lives as well.

bad apple | schwarzes Schaf
unfortunately ʌnˈfɔːtʃənətli| leider, bedauerlicherweise
thrown away | weggeworfen
threat to sth | Gefahr/ Bedrohung für etw.
survival | Überleben, Fortbestand
marine | Meeres- ...

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bad apple | schwarzes Schaf
unfortunately ʌnˈfɔːtʃənətli| leider, bedauerlicherweise
thrown away | weggeworfen
threat to sth | Gefahr/ Bedrohung für etw.
survival | Überleben, Fortbestand
marine | Meeres-

Our love affair with plast ic began in 1907, when the first modern plastic, Bakelite, was invented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland, who then wrote in his journal, ‘Unless I am very much mistaken, this invention will prove important in the future.’ And he was right about that. Plastics would soon be everywhere. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, improvements in manufacturing processes brought the cost of making plastics down dramatically, paving the way for their cheap mass production.

‘Plastic is an amazing substance, an amazing invention,’ says Ian Jamie, director of Staeger Clear Packaging. ‘It is lightweight, tough, durable, transparent, and waterproof.’

Here to Stay

It might be said that plastic made the modern world possible. Many things we take for granted today depend on it, as it has transformed everything from clothing, cooking and catering, to product design, engineering and retailing. Milk, for example, no longer has to be delivered in glass bottles, making it safer and less cumbersome to transport. Plastic has also allowed supermarkets to offer a wider range of fresher produce in different portion sizes. Modern medicine too has greatly benefited from the disposable plastic syringe, invented in 1955.

According to the British Plastics Federation, studies have shown that if plastic packaging had to be replaced with other materials, it would lead to a rise in consumption of packaging, in terms of mass, energy and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, any alternative materials to plastic would result in 2.7 times more CO2 gas emissions over their lifetime.

For all these reasons, few environmentalists would ever seriously consider turning back the clock to a pre-plastic age. The challenge is rather to lessen the worst effects of its proliferation and find ways of reducing the pollution it causes.

More than 10 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year and most of it escapes from land.

Why is Plastic so Problematic?

One of the great advantages of many kinds of plastic is that they are designed to last – for a very long time. And nearly all the plastic ever made still exists in some form today as most of it is neither biodegradable nor can it be recycled. It does not rot, like paper or food, but instead it can linger in the environment for hundreds of years.

So How Much Plastic Waste Ends up in the Sea?

More than 10 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year and most of it escapes from land. It can also be blown into the sea from ships and beaches, or carried there by rivers. Some also gets flushed down the toilet.

This means that if we do not do something now, we could be facing 250 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean in less than 10 years. We cannot just stand by and watch this tidal wave of plastic heading towards our oceans, because in a few years we might end up with a pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the sea. So the future of plastic in our seas and oceans will be determined by the way we handle and dispose of it on land.

Why Is Plastic So Harmful to Marine Life?

You might have seen videos of a sea turtle with a plastic straw embedded in its nose or a dolphin entangled in a fishing net. Some of these incidents have happy endings, but many more do not.

From the tiniest plankton to the largest whales, plastic impacts nearly 700 species in our oceans and has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles. Our oceans are slowly turning into a plastic soup and its effects on ocean life are frightening. Some marine animals can become snared in larger plastics – particularly nets and ropes. Big pieces of plastic are choking and entangling turtles and seabirds, while tiny plastic pieces are clogging the guts of sea creatures who mistake it for food. They cannot digest plastic, so their stomachs can become full and do not have any room left for actual food. Each year, around 100,000 animals in the sea are killed by plastic.

Over time, plastic waste slowly degrades and breaks down into tiny micro-plastics, which have been found in fish, seafloor sediments and even in Antarctic ice. Plastic has now entered every level of the ocean food chain and even ends up in the seafood on our plates. Eating plastic can result in malnutrition or starvation for fish and seabirds, and lead to plastic ingestion in humans, too. The effect of eating fish containing plastic on humans is still largely unknown and is being currently investigated by scientists. But already in 2016, the European Food Safety Authority warned of the increased risk of consuming plastic to human health and food safety, ‘given the potential for micro-plastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish’.

Islands of Trash Floating in the Oceans

Plastic waste accumulates in some areas of the ocean, carried there and brought together by winds and currents. This way, islands of garbage, known as gyres or patches, which suck in any floating marine debris, are created. There are five huge gyres around the world. All five of them have higher concentrations of plastic rubbish than other parts of the oceans and are made up of tiny fragments of plastic, which appear to hang suspended below the surface – a phenomenon that has led it to being described as plastic soup.

For many people, the idea of a ‘garbage patch’ conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean surface. In reality, these patches are not easily visible, because they consist of small plastic particles that are almost invisible to the naked eye. It is also impossible to detect these gyres by aircraft or satellite.

What Is Being Done?

Many governments and non-governmental organisations [NGOs] are trying to help tackle plastic pollution and cut the amount of plastic we use, for example, by imposing a fee on plastic carrier bags, banning plastic straws, recycling garbage or forcing supermarkets to make their packaging easier to reutilise, or even plastic free.

Every Little Bit Helps

In itself, plastic is not as evil as it is painted. On the contrary, it makes our lives so much easier and more convenient. We cannot get rid of it altogether – that is not realistic or even possible. But we have to reverse the tide of plastic entering our oceans, seas and rivers, or we will destroy not only our marine life but also a valuable source of healthy food. So, next time you want to grab a piece of plastic packaging, a straw or a disposable coffee cup, think carefully if you really need to use it, and how you will dispose of it. This might seem like a drop in the ocean, but every little bit helps.

1love affair with sth | Liaison mit etw.
invented | erfunden
to prove | sich erweisen
improvement | Verbesserung
to bring sth down | etw. senken
to pave the way for sth | den Weg für etw. ebnen
lightweight ˈlaɪtweɪt| leicht
tough tʌf| hart, robust
durable ˈdjʊərəbl| beanspruchbar, langlebig, haltbar
waterproof | wasserdicht, -fest
to take sth for granted | etw. als gegeben annehmen/ hinnehmen
2retailing | Einzelhandel
delivered | geliefert
cumbersome | umständlich, schwerfällig
to allow sth do do sth | etw. erlauben, etw. zu tun
disposable dɪˈspəʊzəbl| wegwerfbar, Einmalsyringe sɪˈrɪndʒ| Spritze
according to sb | laut jdm.
to lead to sth | zu etw. führen
rise | Anstieg
in terms of sth | bezüglich etw.
greenhouse gas | Treibhausgas
to turn back the clock | das Rad der Zeit zurückdrehen
to lessen sth | etw. abmildern, vermindern
proliferation | Ausbreitung, Ausuferung
pollution | Verschmutzung
3advantage | Vorteil
nearly | fast, beinahe
biodegradable | biologisch abbaubar
instead | anstatt
to rot | verrotten
to linger | bleiben, fortbestehen
blown | geweht, geblasen
carried | befördert, gebracht
to get flushed down the toilet | die Toilette heruntergespült werden
to face sth | sich etw. gegenübersehen, etw. ins Auge sehen
tidal wave | Flutwelle
to head towards sth | sich auf etw. zubewegen
4to handle sth | mit etw. umgehen/fertig werden
to dispose of sth | etw. loswerden, entsorgen
straw strɔː| Strohhalm
to be embedded in X | in etw. stecken
entangled in sth | in etw. verfangen, verheddert
to impact sth | etw. beeinflussen
species | Spezies, Gattung
5to turn into sth | (sich) in etw. verwandeln
to become snared in sth | sich in etw. verfangen
to choke | ersticken
to entangle | umschlingen
to clog sth | etw. verstopfen
guts | Gedärme, Eingeweide
to digest sth | etw. verdauen
stomach ˈstʌmək| Magen
actual | wirklich, tatsächlich
to break down into sth | sich in etw. aufspalten
sediment | Sediment, Ablagerung
malnutrition | Unterernährung, Mangelernährung
starvation | Hungertod, Verhungern
ingestion | Nahrungsaufnahme, Aufnahme
currently | gegenwärtig
6increased | erhöht, stärker
edible ˈedəbl| essbar
tissue | Gewebe
trash | Müll
gyre | Wirbel
patch | Fleck
to suck in | ansaugen, einsaugen
debris | Trümmer, verstreuter Abfall
to hang | hängen
suspended | schwebend
phenomenon | Phänomen
to conjure sth up | etw. heraufbeschwören, herbeizaubern
7to consist of sth | aus etw. bestehen
to tackle sth | etw. in Angriff nehmen, anpacken
to impose sth on sth | etw. mit etw. belegen, etw. etw. auferlegen
fee | Gebühr
to ban sth | etw. verbieten
to force sb to do sth | jdn. zwingen, etw. zu tun
not as evil as it is painted | besser als sein Ruf
on the contrary | im Gegenteil
convenient | komfortabel, bequem
to get rid of sth | etw. loswerden
8 to reverse sth | etw. umkehren, rückgängig machen
to grab sth | sich etw. schnappen/greifen
disposable | Einweg-, Wegwerfto
dispose of sth | etw. entsorgen

Cant we just collect all the plastic from the ocean and get rid of it?

It is a good idea, but sadly impossible. Firstly, only 1% of marine litter floats, while the vast majority sinks to the bottom of the sea. Even if we attempted to clean up that 1%, who would pay for this in international waters? Besides, most of the plastic pieces are tiny. Secondly, even if miraculously we managed to scoop all of these pieces up, most of them being smaller than a grain of rice, what would we do with them? So the only solution is to drastically cut down the amount of plastic we use and be careful how we dispose of it.

to collect sth | etw. sammeln
litter | Abfälle, Müll
majority | Mehrheit
to sink | sinken
to attempt to do sth | versuchen, etw. zu tun
miraculously mɪˈrækjələsli| auf wundersame Weise
to scoop sth up | etw. zusammenraffen, aufscheffeln
grain of rice | Reiskorn