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Disposable Food Plastics Choking Seas

Takeout packaging and throwaway plastic utensils are piling up across the globe as conservation groups fight a mounting tide of plastics pollution.

A plastic fork mingles with sand and seaweed on a beach.

Photo: Ingrid Taylar (flickr)

A United Nations report this year estimated that the world’s oceans contain 8 million tons of plastic.

A Tide of Plastic

As the home food delivery biz surges, so has a mounting environmental menace: disposable plastic food packaging.

A recent report from the investment firm Cowen is predicting a whopping 79 percent increase in the home delivery market over the next five years, from $43 million to $76 million.

Consider how many of those meals are packaged with disposable plastic containers, utensils and straws — it’s a staggering amount of plastic waste that doesn’t go away.

Clean Water Action, a California-based environmental group, found the biggest source of litter in the San Francisco Bay Area was fast food, with disposable plastic bags, containers and utensils making up nearly half of all street litter.

Fish Food

Much of that plastic ends up in the ocean, where currents swirl it into maelstroms of waste that threaten marine life.

The Pacific Gyre between Hawaii and San Francisco now covers an area the size of Texas and contains about 3.5 million tons of trash.

Plastics break down into tiny particles that become a ubiquitous part of the food chain.

A 2015 study rated plastic bags and utensils as biggest ingestion risk for seabirds, turtles and marine mammals.

The United Nations says that by 2050, oceans will carry more plastic than fish and 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic.

Global Picture

The UN also estimates that the world’s oceans currently contain 8 million tons of plastic.

Asian countries rank among the worst offenders.

A report from the Ocean Conservancy said rapid economic growth in developing countries has spurred this wave of disposable food packaging.

The report said worldwide, 60 percent of all marine plastic in oceans can be traced to just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

In Indonesia alone, a booming motorcycle taxi and delivery service, Go-Jek, has transformed the country’s food delivery landscape since it was founded in 2010, and is now valued at $2 billion.

Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba has invested heavily in food delivery apps.

Wrapping it Up

There are plenty of success stories.

Ireland reduced its plastic bag consumption by 90 percent between 2001 and 2011 after imposing a 37-cent plastic bag tax.

In the US, more than 130 anti-bag regulations are in effect, according to the Reuse This Bag advocacy group.

Chicago banned bags in 2014.

Washington, DC and Dallas now charge for bags.

In 2013, a study showed that after San Jose, California, enacted a bag ban, there was a near 90 percent drop in the amount of plastic in storm drains and almost 60 percent lass in the streets.

Read More:

  • We Are So Forked (Mother Jones)
  • These 5 Countries Account For 60% of Plastic Pollution In Oceans (EcoWatch)
  • Using Expert Elicitation To Estimate The Impacts Of Plastic Pollution On Marine Wildlife (ScienceDirect)
  • Fast Food Garbage Makes Up 50% Of Street (And Pacific Gyre) Litter (TriplePundit)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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