The modern environmental movement owes much of it’s mainstream awareness in the Western world to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an environmental science book that primarily focused upon ascribing the visible loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation to the use of artificial pesticides in agriculture. The book accused chemical companies of spreading misinformation concerning the use of certain compounds, and is attributed as a pivotal turning point in the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the categorization of the chemical compound DDT, once sprayed on crops, as a pesticide not safe for regular consumption.
The movement also brought onto the mainstream conscience a new concept – that our impacts upon the environmental were tangible, attributable and could be traced back to externalities from human activity. This conceptual leap facilitated the adoption into the mainstream the idea that carbon emissions from industrial activity were harming the environment, even if individual people had difficulty ascribing the impacts of this change into their daily lives. But describing a pollutant – defined as a substance introduced by human activity that has a detrimental impact on the surrounding environment – often conjures the images of sea turtles eating plastic bags, landfills of scrap metal and used electronics, and noxious smokestacks belching black smoke over the stockyards in 1900’s Chicago.
It is this variant of pollution – physical – that actually poses a greater risk than many anticipate. Simply understood as the introduction of discarded materials into the environment, the scope is enormous. Studies have shown that in plastic alone, 4-12 million tonnes are dumped into the ocean every year, with concentrations currently found as high as 580,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre of ocean. Exact figures are notoriously hard to come by when calculating dumping, as it is a practice conducted by individuals, groups, industries, organizations and governments in every single coastal nation on Earth. But the average annual wastage of 8 million pounds tonnes (over 17.6 trillion pounds) has the “triple threat” impact of interfering with the feeding patterns of animals, increasing the likelihood of entanglement and drowning for marine life, and leaching toxins into the environmental as degradation occurs over thousands of years.
Let’s start with plastic: Plastic production has doubled every 11 years since mass production began in the 1950s, with corresponding increases in the concentrations found in the marine environment. Since the 1970s, trends have traced that over half of all seabird species are in decline, with a 2015 study in the National Academy of Sciences estimating that over 90% of all seabirds are now contaminated with plastic, with figures estimating that the number will increase to 99% by 2050. Most startlingly for humans, the areas with the highest concentrations were not the expected regions, such as the infamous Great Pacific garbage patch currently making up as much as 8% of the entire Pacific Ocean, but rather in Southern coastal regions where ecological diversity of species is the highest. These findings show that areas once thought as pristine have an elevated risk, and with one in six humans depending primarily upon fish as the protein source in their diets, the trophic repercussions of excess plastics could see the degradation of 16% of the global food supply faster than expected.
Plastic is far from the only problem: mass consumption of electronics, along with an average replacement rate of 3-5 years, has seen disposal of electronics and manufactured goods skyrocket. Once disposed of, electronic goods can be recycled – the United States of America claims to recycle 15% of all electronic goods disposed of nationally. But with recycling programs for used electronics only introduced 70 years after commercial popularization of the goods themselves and the EPA estimating that over 2.17 million tonnes of electronics were disposed of without being recycled in 2015, that is a far cry from being the norm. Additionally, a 2015 UN report found that over 90% of global electronic waste (approximately 41 million tonnes) is illegally dumped annually by developed nations into developing nations, costing $52M USD and bypassing the recycling market entirely.
The danger here is twofold: electronics do not degrade in natural environments, creating vast landfills of e-waste, and complex machinery leaches chemicals into the environment, including volatile compounds and heavy metals. Lead, cadmium and mercury have been found in excess quantities harmful to human health in e-waste dumps. And unlike developed nations, where worker safety regulations exist to protect employees from contact with harmful substances, e-waste dumps are manned by recyclers, often children, who burn plastics to access valuable copper and rare earth minerals contained in circuitry and hardware. A similar problem exists with the disposal of scrap metal and used appliances. High levels of zinc, cadmium, mercury and copper were found in yards mined by children, working gloveless and inhaling the fumes from stacks of burning garbage.
Nations have taken steps towards regulating and penalizing the dumping of physical pollution, which has served to change some behaviour. Recycling rates for electronics are increasing year-over-year for both consumers and industry-members. Technologies focused on improving recycling methods improve annually, and the global recycling industry for electronics alone is now valued at $410B USD. But the indication as to whether to panic can be best informed by Canadian scientists in 2015 claiming that marine plastics are “the new DDT”, posing the same level of systemic risk that the chemical compound once did. One can only hope that such warnings inspire the same level of action that Carson drew with her plea for a better world.