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When longevity is not a good thing

The oceans are increasingly becoming the world’s dumping grounds. Waste from plastics will outlast us by hundreds of years. Some thoughts on the occasion of the UN’s World Oceans Day on 8 June.

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The Prophecy #2, Fabrice Monteiro, 2013 (Courtesy of Fabrice Monteiro)*

Earth is often called the “blue planet” because 70% of its surface is covered in water. This makes it a unique planet in our universe. But we may soon have to call it the “plastic planet” instead.

More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year – the equivalent of a lorry dumping its load into the water once every minute. If things continue this way, plastic in the oceans will probably outweigh fish by 2050, according to a study by the World Economic Forum. According to this study, since 1950, when the production of plastics increased sharply due to scientific progress, more than 150 tons of plastic have been dumped into the sea. A good fifth of the trash is from ships, with the rest entering the water from dry land.

The problem is that while long life is a blessing for individuals, the increasing longevity of trash is a curse. Plastic decomposes very slowly, if at all. Some of the plastic dumped in the water today will float or lie there for hundreds of years. For example, a thin plastic bag that we use for maybe 20 minutes to carry our purchases home takes 10 to 20 years to decompose. A plastic bottle takes 450 years to disintegrate, as the following chart shows.

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Each year, around a million sea birds and 100 000 fish, marine mammals and turtles die as a result of plastic waste, according to estimates by the United Nations, which will celebrate World Oceans Day on 8 June. Animals get caught in trash, or they confuse the colourful pieces of plastic for food. “Pieces of plastic can get caught in their throat or lodge in their digestive tract – blocking their airways and food intake”, warns the WWF. Whales, dolphins and other marine mammals get tangled in old fishing nets and drown in agony. Ultimately, tiny plastic particles also wind up in the human body through the food chain.

This is the dark side of a material that has changed and simplified our lives like no other before it. It is impossible to think of modern society without it – and it will outlast us by hundreds of years. 

* Ocean pollution is also a theme explored by photographer Fabrice Monteiro. The photo above is from the project “The Prophecy”, which he put together along with Senegalese fashion designer Doulsy. The seemingly apocalyptic photo series, financed through the crowdfunding platform Ecofund, looks at environmental destruction in Africa. “Africa used to be so clean”, says Monteiro, who was born in Belgium and grew up in the West African nation of Benin. “Now you can no longer go in the water on some days because it’s so incredibly polluted.”

The photo was taken in Hann Bay in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. What was once one of the most beautiful beaches in West Africa is now a gruesome sight. The nearby slaughterhouses dump their waste into the sea, and scraps of plastic bags float on the water’s surface like piles of black leaves. Monteiro and Doulsy, who designed the costume made of trash, have raised a mutant being from the polluted ocean, one that serves as a warning sign for humanity. “I wanted to create images that question us about our ways of consuming”, says the photographer. “The idea is to motivate an ecological consciousness in the upcoming generation by mixing art, culture and tradition.”

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