Brandon Greenblatt // 12 February 2016 // #GoingGreen
Last month, the World Economic Forum released a report entitled The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics that described the rapid growth of plastic waste and its contribution to environmental degradation. The report began with a startling statistic: The use of plastic has increased by twenty times within the last fifty years and is expected to double again within the next twenty years.
Based on your experience with Going Green’s classroom modules and your knowledge of environmental issues, this should appear to be a pretty frightening trend! The chemical make-up of commercial plastics – such as the plastic water bottles, shopping bags, and packaging materials you encounter every day – ensures that plastics decompose very slowly. This means that dangerous chemicals can leak into our ecosystem, endangering plants and animals that contribute to Earth’s biodiversity and beauty.
A particularly dangerous problem arises when plastic packaging interferes with the natural world. The World Economic Forum reported that plastic packaging comprises 26% of global plastic use and poses a particularly high risk for the health and safety of wildlife. You’ve all probably seen the heart-wrenching videos of dolphins struggling to escape from plastic packaging that floated out to sea. Many terrestrial mammals encounter plastic too, often accidentally ingesting it and falling ill. As the World Economic Forum’s report indicated, the amount of plastic waste which humans have created is enormous and, quite simply, almost too difficult to manage.
»Plastic packaging comprises 26% of global plastic use and poses a particularly high risk for the health and safety of wildlife.«
The World Economic Forum
Luckily, scientists and policy makers have been working diligently to develop a series of exciting solutions to tackle this problem. Der Spiegel, a weekly German news magazine, recently reported on one such innovative project, which I’d like to share with you.
Boyan Slat, a 21 year-old Dutch inventor and entrepreneur, founded The Ocean Cleanup project in 2013. The Ocean Cleanup is an engineering system which takes advantage of natural ocean currents to remove plastics from our waters efficiently. Slat identified areas in which ocean currents converge and seem to concentrate plastic waste. He theorized that focusing clean-up efforts at such places would be the most effective way to remove plastic waste. Slat designed a series of V-shaped barriers that can be placed at water current convergence points, such that plastic waste will collect against the barrier. Water currents and marine animals can pass under the barrier, yet neutrally buoyant plastic will be trapped. Finally, plastic waste can then be removed from against the barrier, effectively eliminating harmful materials from the marine ecosystem. You can read more about the mechanics of Slat’s invention here.
The Ocean Cleanup isn’t the only effort to remove plastic waste from the ocean, and oceans are not the only place where plastic waste can be harmful. However, Slat’s project is particularly exciting for a few reasons.
Most remarkably, The Ocean Cleanup is the brainchild of someone who is only a few years older than most of you! Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup while he was studying at university, and he’s now taking some time off to devote all of his time to the project. This story illustrates that you don’t need to be an expert scientists or professional to make a difference. You just need to have some creative ideas and the perseverance to develop them into actionable solutions.
»The Ocean Cleanup is the brainchild of someone who is only a few years older than most of you!«
I’m not sure if Boyan Slat participated in a project like Going Green while he was in high school, but I’m sure he would have found this program to be incredibly beneficial. As a participant in the Going Green project, you not only have the opportunity to learn about pressing issues that threaten environmental sustainability, but you have the chance to develop your own plans and implement solutions. Climate change and environmental degradation are problems that impact us all, yet all of us have the opportunity to make a difference. And, as Slat and others have illustrated, the problem is most definitely not insurmountable. Yet, the best approach all of us can take is to avoid using plastics whenever possible.
Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in International Affairs and studying German at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from Matthews, North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown’s international affairs newspaper.