The oceans have become one giant refuse bin for all manner of plastics. Environmental and health concerns associated with plastic pollution are a long recognised international problem (Carpenter & Smith 1972). Whilst approximately 10% of all solid waste is plastic (Heap 2009), up to 80% of the waste that accumulates on land, shorelines, the ocean surface, or seabed is plastic (Barnes et al. 2009).
Plastics have an array of unique properties: they are inexpensive, lightweight, strong, durable, corrosion resistant, and with high thermal and electrical insulation properties. This versatility has revolutionised our life and not least made information technology and electrical goods far more readily available than would have been possible otherwise. They have also contributed to our health and safety (e.g., clean distribution of water and breakthrough medical devices), and have led to substantial energy savings in transportation. Unsurprisingly, with an ever expanding population and our standard of living continuously improving, plastic production has increased from 0.5 to 260 million tonnes per year since 1950 (Heap 2009), accounting today for approximately 8% of world oil production (Thompson et al. 2009b). Almost all aspects of our daily life involve plastics in some form or another: from hair dryers to shoes, to the car we drive and the wrap around lunch sandwiches. A scary thought considering that in the 1960s, less than 1% of our waste was plastic.
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