Enormous amounts of plastic released into the ocean from Third World rivers and cargo ships constitute a significant environmental problem. However, for years, scientists have been puzzled by the discrepancy between the released and measured ocean plastic. More than 98% goes missing every year, causing researchers to wonder where it goes. A new study may have an answer: It is dissolved by the sun.
Scientists from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, East China Normal University, and Northeastern University conducted a lab experiment to study how plastic responds to direct sunlight while floating in ocean water.
Published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the study exposed various plastic polymers commonly found in ocean garbage to simulated sunlight while immersed in ocean water for two months. It observed degradation and dissolution at a far higher rate than anyone previously thought possible.
The consensus has been that plastic survives in nature for thousands of years. This study showed that, when exposed to sunlight, the half-life – the time it takes for half of the material to disappear – of common types of plastic was reduced to only 2.7 years. The most robust plastic had an estimated half-life of 49 years, which is still orders of magnitude faster than previously believed.
The conclusion is good news for ocean wildlife and for those concerned with the environment. However, this does not mean that the pollution of the seas is no longer a concern. Much can and should be done to alleviate the problem.
In the West, news of sea creatures trapped in plastic typically is met with more demands to ban plastic straws. This is a classic example of narcissistic altruism, the misplaced belief that anything wrong in the world is to be blamed on America. Yet 95% of the plastic garbage in the ocean comes from only ten rivers in the world, most of them in Asia, and all of them in the Third World.
According to The Wall Street Journal, China alone accounts for 8.8 million tons annually, whereas America releases only 0.3 million tons. The United States accounts for only about 1% of the combined world pollution.
In addition to Third World rivers, the second massive polluter is Third World cargo ships. Scientists found that 73% of the plastic bottles washed ashore on Inaccessible Island in the South Atlantic were from Asia, mostly made in China. It means that the empire in the East is the most significant exporter of environmental problems in the world, reaching even the shores of the Atlantic.
Tougher on Trade?
Until now, Third World countries have been given a free pass by the West. They get to produce as much CO2 as they want, cheat on intellectual property, subsidize their national industry while tolling and strictly regulating foreign competitors, treat their workers in a way that would never be allowed in the West, and release most of the garbage that pollutes the world’s oceans to the detriment of all. The main culprit is China.
Rather than banning plastic straws, it would be infinitely more effective to ban Chinese trade until they cleaned up their act. All those cheap goods made in China that Americans buy at malls leave a trail of plastic bottles in their wake when transported across the ocean.
Free trade is fantastic when all parties obey the rules of the game. As China’s largest customer, America has the power to change the largest polluter’s behavior. China wants to be taken seriously as an international powerhouse, and it is, therefore, time to also demand that it stops polluting the oceans.
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