The Invasive Species of Our Century
In the southern United States, a drive down an old country highway will often unveil vistas of towering vine-covered trees. The vine is likely kudzu. Kudzu is not native to Arkansas where I live or North America for that matter.
In his Smithsonian Magazine article “The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the South,” Bill Finch writes:
In the decades that followed kudzu’s formal introduction at the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, farmers found little use for a vine that could take years to establish, was nearly impossible to harvest and couldn’t tolerate sustained grazing by horses or cattle. But in 1935, as dust storms damaged the prairies, Congress declared war on soil erosion and enlisted kudzu as a primary weapon. More than 70 million kudzu seedlings were grown in nurseries by the newly created Soil Conservation Service. To overcome the lingering suspicions of farmers, the service offered as much as $8 per acre to anyone willing to plant the vine.
Read the full article here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/true-story-kudzu-vine-ate-south-180956325/
And off it went! Kudzu took hold doing just what it was planted to do and then some. It is just one of countless examples of invasive species - living plants and animals that are transported from their native home, either intentionally or unintentionally, and deposited in an alien habitat, thereby “invading” an ecosystem to which they do not belong. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) describes invasive species as such: “any kind of living organism … that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm. They can harm the environment, the economy, or even human health.”
In the 21st Century, I would argue that we are dealing with a much different kind of invasion. One of epic proportions. This beast is pervasive and poisonous. It can survive any climate including arid or wet conditions. It is global, it is taking over, and it is deadly.
I am talking about plastic.
Aside from the fact that plastic is not a living organism, it meets all other criteria of an invasive “species.” Referencing the NWF description above, plastic is definitely not native to any ecosystem - so it is always invasive - and can harm environments, economies and the health of living beings. Let’s break that down a bit.
First of all, plastic is not a natural substance. It is purely manmade, produced largely from fossil fuels and chemicals. It is made to last, to resist degradation. Plastic is used in virtually every industry, not the least of which is the consumer packaged goods industry. Consumer packaged goods or CPGs are those packaged goods we buy and then use up. Food, beverages, cosmetics, toiletries, etc. These items are often made of plastic - or at least packaged in plastic - and are purchased and consumed by humans worldwide. Most of the plastic packaging cannot be recycled. Either it is disposed of "responsibly" and makes its way to a landfill, or it becomes litter and can end up in streams, rivers and oceans.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the statistic floating around that if current waste trends continue, that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish in the ocean. We could argue all day as to whether or not that is true, but a quick Internet search will yield thousands of pictures of plastic waste washing up on shore and being pulled from the ocean. That same internet search will also turn up stories about the consumption of plastic by fish and other sea-dwelling creatures often causing harm to many.
And humans are not immune. It has been estimated that humans currently consume around 5 grams of plastic - about the weight of a credit-card - every week. Yum!
In addition to polluting and harming habitats, plastic waste can impact economies, especially those that are associated with waterways. A report published by Deloitte The Netherlands in 2019 stated “Marine litter affects key industries such as fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, commercial shipping, and local coastal governments. The economic costs associated with marine litter can be direct (i.e. cleanup activities, and potential loss in economic value) or indirect (i.e. impact on biodiversity and ecosystems).”
Finally, we cannot turn a blind eye to waste that is shipped overseas from developed nations to poverty-stricken countries. Often these countries do not have the infrastructure to manage their own waste much less additional waste that is shipped in. The picture below of a man in Jakarta, Indonesia, sorting through a literal sea of garbage is a stark reminder of the problem. The health risks of adults and children who find themselves literally living on and working in garbage patches is great.
As with any invasive species, we need an action plan. But this problem is so big, and it is not isolated to one area. Across the planet we are all impacted by man-made plastic waste. So what can we do? As consumers we can be more thoughtful about what we buy, opting for non packaged goods or at least goods packaged in recyclable or compostable material. As citizens we can get involved and be proactive in demanding change. The pervasiveness of plastic waste is no legacy to leave for future generations. Who will win this battle - Plastic or Planet Earth?