A plastic-free future: how data helps the environment

In our blog, we have repeatedly highlighted the importance of data for businesses and individual users. It’s not for nothing that data is called new oil. There is no area where modern technologies for obtaining, processing and analyzing data would not lead to revolutionary changes. And today we will talk about ecology, or rather, about plastic waste, from which whole islands of garbage are formed in the ocean. Data has changed many approaches to environmental issues, and ultimately it will help solve one of the pressing problems of humanity.

Plastic: good and evil

Without any doubt, plastic at one time made a revolution… The material, made from long chains of synthetic polymers, has proven to be strong, lightweight and flexible. Plastic can be found in everything today, from beverage bottles to car parts and diapers.

Bakelite was originally created as a replacement for shellac, a natural resin produced by tropical insects – lacquer worms. By performing the polycondensation reaction of phenol and formaldehyde, Leo Bakeland first obtained a thermoplastic phenol-formaldehyde resin, which cured only in the presence of hardeners. Leo Bakeland named this polymer “Novolak”, but it was not successful in the market. Continuing research in the field of the reaction between phenol and formaldehyde, as well as selecting various fillers (asbestos powder, etc.), Leo Bakeland obtained a polymer that does not require hardeners, for which he could not find a solvent. This led him to believe that such a practically insoluble and non-conductive polymer could be very valuable. In 1909, Leo Bakeland reported on the material he had received, which he called “Bakelite.” This material was the first synthetic thermosetting plastic – a plastic that did not soften at high temperatures. A source

The first synthetic plastic Bakelite was invented at the beginning of the 20th century, after which the world went crazy. If you believe Our World in Data, over the past 65 years, the annual production of plastic increased almost 200 times, up to 381 million tons… Plastic is ubiquitous in the life of every person on the planet.

Unfortunately, the popularity of such a versatile material has a negative impact on the environment. According to information United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Woods Hole Sea Grant, Certain Plastics can decompose for up to 600 years… The roadsides are filled with plastic waste, islands of plastic are formed in the ocean, flora and fauna are suffering.

Here a few key figures:

  • During its history, mankind has produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic;

  • Half of these volumes have been manufactured in the last 13 years;

  • About 30% of these volumes are still in use;

  • Less than 9% of the plastic that ended up in the landfill was recycled;

  • 12% were burned, another 79% are in landfills;

  • The shortest use for packaging plastic is less than a year on average;

  • The longest use of plastic products is in construction and machinery;

  • Current trends predict that humanity will produce 12 billion tonnes of plastic by 2050.

World Economic Forum predictedthat by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic (by weight) than fish. At the rate The ocean cleanup Great pacific garbage patch between California and Hawaii, it has an area three times the size of France. There are probably over one hundred million tons of garbage in this area.

The garbage patch occupies a large, relatively stable area in the North Pacific Ocean, bounded by the North Pacific Current System (an area often called “equine latitudes”, or latitudes of the calm belt). The system’s vortex collects debris from across the North Pacific, including coastal waters in North America and Japan. Waste is picked up by surface currents and gradually moved to the center of the whirlpool, which does not release debris beyond its limits. The exact size of the area is unknown. Rough estimates of the area vary from 700 thousand to 1.5 million km² or more (from 0.41% to 0.81% of the total area of ​​the Pacific Ocean). A source

Sad statistics, together with photographs of birds and mammals killed by plastic, make it possible to assess the scale of the problem. Many marine animals even take plastic as food, after which they die too. Hashtag has become a popular hashtag on social media in recent years #plasticfree, not only ordinary people, but also government agencies and businesses turned their attention to the problem of plastic.

The data not only helps to trace the paths of plastic debris and find similar debris spots on our planet, but also helps reduce human dependence on plastic.

Where and how much?

Platform TOPIOS (Tracking of Plastic in Our Seas) is devoted to modeling the movement of plastic in the world’s oceans. The project is coordinated by a doctor Eric van Sebil from the University of Utrecht, renowned oceanologist and researcher of Earth’s climate change.

Michael Kaandorp, a postgraduate student from Utrecht, works in the field machine learning, which will help to calculate the movement patterns of TOPIOS plastic. Kaandorp explained that more research is needed to help determine the endpoints for plastic waste in the ocean. “According to rough estimates, the bill goes to millions of tons of plastic per year, and so far we can only find about one percent of the plastic waste that remains floating on the surface,” said Kaandorp.

The TOPIOS platform helps to find the remaining 99 percent of the plastic hiding in the depths of the seas and oceans. The goal is to evaluate the distribution of plastic over the surface and different layers of the ocean… How much plastic sinks to the bottom and is dumped along the coastline? How much do marine animals eat?

Once in the ocean, plastic breaks down into millions of tiny particles under the influence of the sun, wind, constant collision with each other. Plastic products under these conditions are not subject to biodegradation, the plastic only disintegrates into an ever smaller fraction, while maintaining the polymer structure. As a result, the smallest particles, several millimeters in size, are formed, which float in the surface layer of the ocean in gigantic territories. Marine life feeds on this crumb, mistaking it for plankton, and the plastic is incorporated into the animal’s food chain. At present, the mass of plastic anthropogenic debris in the zone of ocean garbage patches is seven times greater than the mass of zooplankton located there; experts call such places “plastic soup”. A source

A team from the University of Utrecht simulates the pathways of plastic debris using collected data from different locations in the ocean, as well as high-resolution ocean currents. Added to computer models “Virtual plastic”which is then tracked through the toolbox oceanparcels open source. Python and C code is available on GitHub, where both the TOPIOS team and outside enthusiasts work on it.

“By combining our model and field information representing the concentration of plastic in the ocean, we create a map in space and time that can be used to find where all the plastic is concentrated,” Kaandorp said.

The TOPIOS platform shows where plastic waste accumulates. And the project Our World in Datawhich is under the patronage Oxford University and Global Change Data Lab, allows everyone to get this data in a convenient form. And you can see extensive statistical information on the production of plastic, use in various sectors of human activity… Which countries do the worst with plastic recycling and generate the most waste? Which rivers carry the most plastic into the ocean? Which oceans are the most polluted? All this you can see in detailed report

Plastic database contains information from the 1950s to the present, there are even forecasts for the future until 2050. Access to the database is provided as part of the project’s global mission to collect information about “strong and long-term trends that are changing our world.” The site’s creators should be commended for their interactive data visualization and helpful links to scientific literature.

On the site you can track progress fulfillment UN Sustainable Development Goals… Several of these goals specifically address plastic waste. For example, “By 2025, prevent and substantially reduce ocean pollution by all types of waste”

Our World in Data team receives data from three main sources: international research organizations and institutions, published articles and documents, information from statistical agencies, including the OECD, the World Bank, and the UN. Processed data used by leading publications all over the world, including The New York Times, BBC and El Pais. Moreover, Our World in Data works not only on the topic of plastic, but also, for example, poverty and global climate change.

The information provided by TOPIOS and Our World in Data helps assess the magnitude of the problem. Now it remains to move on to solving it.

#plasticfree – a plastic-free future?

Data analysis allows you to assess how successful the activities of governments, businesses and ordinary people are. Where can we talk about achieving a result, and where – about failure.

As you can see from UN report, many countries have adopted legislative measures to limit the use of the three main constituents of plastic waste: bags, disposable dishes (for example, the same straws) and microgranules that are part of face products, shower gels, toothpastes.

This is a turning point, according to the authors of the report. banning plastic bags, 66 percent of the countries in the world have passed laws restricting their turnover. But the same plastic microbeads are banned in only eight countries out of 192 analyzed.

It is difficult to estimate what percentage of plastic waste is microbeads, since most large-scale studies analyze the general characteristics and amount of microplastics in the environment. However, according to preliminary estimates, microbeads account for between 0.4% and 4.1% of all plastic waste found in the aquatic environment. The danger of such particles lies in their size and, accordingly, easy entry into the water system. In the aquatic environment, microbeads become part of the food chain, as many marine life mistake the plastic fragments for food. According to a 2013 study, more than 250 species of marine animals have mistaken microbeads for food, including fish, turtles and seagulls. When ingested, microgranules not only deprive them of essential nutrients, but can also get stuck in the digestive tract and clog the gills. Microbeads become an integral part of the diet of fry and coral polyps, which prefer microbeads to zooplankton. Also, microbeads can carry and contain other adsorbed contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. When microgranules are consumed, harmful substances enter the body of the biota. A source

According to Kaandorp, more targeted measures should be taken to improve efficiency. TOPIOS will allow all interested parties to understand where the plastic waste is. For example, if plastic sinks quickly and is found near sources of pollution in the same rivers, then the focus should be on cleaning those places, not in the middle of the ocean.

The success of the measures taken to reduce plastic waste will be seen in the TOPIOS model… “It seems to me that it will be possible to identify those countries that have been most successful in reducing plastic waste,” added Kaandorp.

The Our World in Data example command shows how data can change the world. The task is set very ambitious: “If the world is serious about achieving our goals, we will accurately measure progress and publish the results in an accessible and understandable form on a public platform. Only this approach will allow comparing the current situation with the previous stages. We will be able to answer the question whether we are moving in the right direction. Or, on the contrary, the wrong path has been chosen. “

A plastic-free future #plasticfree – the goal is not easy. This will require efforts at all levels: government, business, and common people. Only together we can reduce the destructive consequences of human activity and preserve the nature of the Earth, flora and fauna. And the power of data will help us with that, too!

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