I have just come across this video on you Tube. It shows some research divers positioning ‘bi-degradable’plastic samples on the sea bed and in mid-water. The purpose is tho ascertain how these plastics will biodegrade in the marine environment. I’m sure that the experiments are being undertaken with the best intentions; they are being funded by the European Commission and are being undertaken by a reputable research organization. However, there is something that sits in the back of my mind that needs a comment.
In some respects this experiment is a good thing as it will provide real, practical evidence that is currently missing. It will determine what happens to the materials when they are in the oceans and to some extent we can possibly extrapolate that to uncover what harm might be caused to the environment by them being there. However, I think we are missing the point. On the one hand this experiment might well demonstrate that in the marine environment, ‘bio’ plastics reduce themselves into some biological mulch that is readily devoured by micro organisms living in the sand; I have to say I doubt it. This would of course provide justification for the plastic manufacturers to continue to promote and encourage our disposable live styles on the grounds that should these products get into the marine environment everything will be fine. On the other hand they may discover that in a marine environment with reduced light and oxygen that the materials still take many years to degrade and that during that process they will not be benign, may well provide a medium for the concentration of toxins and are clearly incompatible with life in the oceans.
This experiment comes at a time when there is some significant growth in ‘bio’ plastics and quite simply the introduction of them is not the simple solution it is made out to be – far from it. Bio-plastics will primarily allow the manufacturers to hoodwink consumers so that they continue to ignore their responsibilities by developing an ‘its ok to throw this away because it won’t cause any harm to the environment’ attitude. Their development will also provide a fall back for plastic manufacturers as oil becomes more difficult to access and consequently more costly.
So I have to question the reasoning behind this sort of experiment. To me there is something rather perverse about investigating the impact of a problem that we are currently in the process of creating. This is not an experiment about an existing problem, it is about something that we are doing that will only get worse in the future. I get the feeling that it is almost as if the European Commission are hoping that it will degrade and be safe, that everything will be alright, so they will have one thing less to worry about. I may be getting slightly cynical in my old age but that is my gut feeling. Surely the answer is not to find out what the damage will be, but to not create it in the first place!
So my question to the European Commission is, rather than funding an experiment that will determine what the outcome will be of a problem that is currently in the making, why not spend that money to ensure it doesn’t happen?