The second life of plastic

10 May 2023

The other day, by chance, my attention was drawn to the sight of countless tires deposited on the seabed. The subject was a shocking story published by GreenMe about a coral reef restoration project at the Osborne Reef in Florida, implemented in 1970. To ‘protect’ the reef, two million tires were placed on the ocean floor: this supposedly ecological operation would, in theory, have created an artificial reef and encouraged the growth of new coral.

The operation, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not a success. The tires were joined together with steel clips and nylon straps which were soon corroded by salt water, causing the tires to sink to the ocean floor – an environmental disaster that has yet to be fully fixed. Though many the tires have been removed, an estimated 700,000 are still underwater. Sadly, this kind of pollution is far from being an isolated incident> At Slow Fish we’ll discuss the thousands of objects that are used, thrown away, forgotten… and which end up in the sea, where, just like the tires of the Osborne Reef, they take on a new life.

We’ve approached this theme from a number of directions in past editions of the event: from macro to microplastics, straws, bags and bottles. Once plastics reach the seabed, they begin a new chapter, and a long one. I discuss the second life of plastics with environmental journalist Franco Borgogno, author of two books on the theme. He presents his projects SPlasH! and SPlasH&Co at Slow Fish 2023.

How plastic behaves at sea

“When SPlasH started in 2016, the topic of plastics was beginning to be more widely discussed. Our goal was to study a topic that there was no precise knowledge about, namely the behavior of plastics once they end up in the sea.”

How does plastic behave on the molecular level? How does its behavior change with wave motion? How does it come to life, once it is covered in biofilm, a thin film of organic material which, as time passes, hosts larger life forms, from bacteria to mussels?

SPlasH!: plastic in the pandemic

The SPlasH! project has tried to answer these questions, which resurfaced during the pandemic, as Borgogno explains: “The ‘&Co’ part of the project’s second phase stands for ‘and Covid’. Although the focus on plastics has remained strong, it is true that huge quantities of disposable items were introduced into the environment, from gloves and face masks to a great many other items that we could easily have avoided, such as plastic bottles in canteens. On balance, however, the data collected across various cleanup campaigns shows that the impact of Covid was less than what we expected.”

The impact of face masks

All of this, perhaps, is due in part to the fact that there was already a great deal of public awareness around plastics before Covid. But there is still much work to be done.

Restoring the beauty of the sea – June 3 at 12 p.m.

Our actions are endangering the beauty of the sea and oceans, turning them into polluted garbage dumps. This conference gives a voice to those who collect waste from the sea, those who study the behavior of plastics in the water and on the coasts, those who recover Neptune grass ecosystems and enhance them, those who find alternative solutions to plastic nets for mussel farming… In addition to Franco Borgogno, speakers at the conference include Stefano Pisani, Mayor of Pollica; Paolo D’Ambrosio, director of the Porto Cesareo Marine Protected Area; and Marco Capello, oceanographer at the University of Genoa.

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Ports as plastic collectors

The study concentrated on the ports of Genoa and Toulon. “Ports are an interesting focus because they host strong interconnection between the urban area and the sea. SPlasH&Co’s intent is to investigate whether ports are producers or collectors of plastics. What we have been able to observe is that, although heavy, the activities of ports are monitored. More so than producers of plastics, ports become collectors of them: rivers transport everything that ends up in them.”

In addition to monitoring, sampling and scientific research, an important part of both projects is the education and awareness campaigns carried out in schools.

We depend on the environment

“Educational campaigns are a fundamental part of our work. We adapt the message to different contexts, from kindergartens to high schools to universities, though the primary message does not change. Our lives are completely dependent on the environment, particularly water, particularly the sea. To fully realize this, just consider the most basic actions that allow us to live: breathing, drinking, eating: none of these actions would be possible without water. We drink water, our food is produced from water, and oceanic phytoplankton produce half of the oxygen we breathe.”

In addition to biological life, there is also economic life, the survival of which is equally contingent on water. “An example we often bring up in our lectures is that even the activity of a notary working in a concrete building in an urban center in northern Europe depends on water. In fact, cement is made by combining water with limestone and clay powder, and without water, the very building in which our notary works would not exist, along with the whole city.”

The plastic age

The Osborne Reef tires have been sitting on the Florida seabed for over 50 years, and in those 50 years the natural corals have completely disappeared. In their lectures, the SPlash! team also aim to show the age of different objects collected during their sampling: “A plastic object collected on an alpine glacier may be 20 years old, one found in a river 43 years old, one from a Mediterranean beach 60 years old. Showing the age of this plastic waste gives the audience an idea of the long-term nature of this pollution.”

Recognizing beauty

As a contrast to the longevity of this pollution, we may marvel at the beauty of marine biodiversity. As Borgogno concludes: “Many of the experiences we offer involve observational activities. In March, in Lerici, a storm surge washed ashore seahorses and starfish, in other cases we teach kids to recognize stingray eggs… We’ve probably all seen them, but stopping to appreciate the wonder of these small details that we’re not used to can have a disruptive effect that forces us to rethink our relationship with nature as a whole.”

by Silvia Ceriani,

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

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