National Geographic’s latest cover is a testament to the human impact on our home planet. The most recent addition features what appears to be a massive iceberg in the ocean but is, in fact, a plastic bag. The June 2018 cover goes along with Nat Geo’s latest campaign #planetorplastic which highlights the damage we cause to the environment, specifically the ocean, with single-use plastic.
According to Time Magazine, each year there are around 8 million metric tons of plastic waste added to the ocean, being ingested by marine life, and settling on the deepest parts of the seafloor. It’s not dramatic to say that in 2018, humanity is drowning in plastic waste. Even in the most remote parts of the oceans, in the deepest trenches, lies evidence of humanity’s inability to stop polluting. In fact, islands that have remained completely uninhabited have beaches filled with garbage from around the world such as Henderson Island, which had 38 million pieces of plastic waste on its beach.
Other than being just generally gross, the effect this has on marine life is catastrophic. Many animals will eat the plastic and starve to death because the garbage makes them feel full yet doesn’t digest and it doesn’t give them any nutritional benefits. Larger animals tend to get trapped in plastic death traps such as nets or multi-pack rings. The plastic netting from the grocery store gets wrapped around a seal, making it impossible for it to swim or make it on land, ghost nets drown hundreds of marine life a year. This year, a video appeared on Facebook of people removing a plastic straw that had gotten stuck deep in a poor turtle’s nose.
These are things we don’t consider as we load our groceries into seven plastic bags or go through 100 straws a day at restaurants, however, disregarding such facts has extreme consequences. Such consequences reach beyond the waters as plastic washes ashore. Since it pretty much never degrades, coastal towns all over the world have to deal with mountains of disposed of plastic that have nowhere to go. These towns, like Bali which declared a garbage emergency, are literally overflowing with plastic. Not only does this force people to live in the garbage but it also devastates the environment. According to the Centre For Public Impact, in India, waterborne diseases are one of the leading causes of child mortality because of the toxic waste from plastic. The loss of human life can severely decrease the economic growth of a country and will only get worse as time goes on, affecting entire generations en masse.
Even though plastic has become a great love for our society it’s also one of our biggest detriments. According to Ocean Crusaders, a non-profit volunteer organization, around 100,000 marine animals die every year due to plastic pollution and about 1 million birds. It may seem like a drastic number and that’s because it is. One piece of plastic can take anywhere from 50-to 1000 years to fully biodegrade, in that time one plastic bag could kill multiple animals. Not all marine life dies as a result of eating the plastic but many of them do, the rest suffer from deep lacerations, suffocation or entanglement. Not only is the plastic itself a huge problem, but the way plastic is manufactured contributes to it as well. Since plastic is basically solid oil, it doesn’t absorb water, is very buoyant, and is incredibly toxic as it begins to break down.
A 2017 report by Ocean Conservancy said that about 80% of all plastic waste comes from five Asian countries: Vietnam, Thailand, The Philippines, Indonesia, and China which outputs a whopping 8.8 million tons of plastic a year. The high population could be a factor in these five countries, however, they are also the countries with some of the highest production rates. For example, Nintendo packages their games in full-size plastic rectangles while the actual game cartridge is about 80% smaller, also made of plastic.
The launch of National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic initiative is an attempt to expose the world to just how severe the problem is. We can no longer push it aside or sweep it under the ocean floor. Entire industries are being destroyed such as fisheries, mainly due to the fact that most fish caught are not edible on account of all the plastic in their stomach. No matter how close the colonization of Mars seems to be, we still only have one planet that we share with millions of other species, around 1 trillion to be exact. Not only is it wildly unfair to every living thing on this planet, but it’s also incredibly dangerous to continue on our current path of single-use plastic. As the species doing the most damage, it’s our responsibility to come up with a common solution to get the garbage out of the ocean and off the beaches for good. National Geographic’s cover emphasizes how easy it is to mistake plastic for natural elements and how urgent the need for something more sustainable has become.