Residents stand near a giant rubber duck on a lake at the newly developped town of Phu My Hung in Ho Chi Minh city on April 28, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Our plastic waste is changing the geology of the Earth's rocks

The tiny pieces of plastic that we throw away every year are forming a new layer of sedentary rock across the planet - just another sign of our careless attitude to waste.

More than 20 years since they went overboard in a storm, thousands of plastic ducks - part of a Chinese shipment of bath toys destined for the US - are still washing up on the world's shores. Once yellow, now bleached white, the toys have become a boon for oceanographers who have been tracking them to learn more about ocean currents. Thousands are still expected to make it to shore intact; but many will have a much longer legacy. 

Plastic is becoming part of the world's geology. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario and the Algalita Marine Research Institute in California say they've discovered a completely new type of rock, formed when discarded plastic softens and combines with volcanic rock, sea shells, sand and corals.

Camp fires on beaches form a particularly dense variety, but any discarded plastic will do: examples found by the team derived from fishing nets, piping, bottle caps and rubber tyres. The plastic becomes incorporated into rock mainly in the form of 'confetti': tiny particles formed as larger items break down. The result is analogous to sedimentary rock such as limestone, says Patricia Corcoran of Western University: "the plastics I see as grains of sediment ... because they move on a beach in the same way, comtrolled by wind and water."

Much of the plastic isn't even visible. "Basically, there are probably more microplastics out there than there are larger particles - we just can't see them," says Corcoran. "So, do plastics break down to the point where they don't exist? No. they've been shown to exist in a form that is a monomer, so they do still go on, so there is a process of organisms ingesting these microplastics."

Some of these particles come from the most surprising places - who'd have thought, for example, that body scrubs could be damaging the planet? But, in the US, there's now a move to ban the type that uses tiny plastic microbeads - already outlawed in Illinois, and with New York considering following suit. Incredibly, a single tube of facial scrub can contain as many as 330,000 beads, which aren't removed by standard sewage treatment systems.

In 1997, it was estimated that a staggering 5.8 million tonnes of waste was reaching the oceans every year; and in 2005, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) concluded that there were over 13,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on every square kilometre of ocean. The amount is rising, with Ocean Conservancy predicting that 'peak plastic' won't occur until the next century.

Many people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; what's less well known is the fact that this is only one of five rotating ocean currents, known as gyres, all of which are collecting massive quantities of floating plastic - as many as 30,000 pieces per square kilometre. Earlier this month, an expedition by the Ocean Research Project set off from California for Japan, using a high-speed trawl net to gather samples of these ocean plastics in an attempt to quantify the problem.

"The media likes to sensationalise stories, and at some point five or six years ago some media outlet came up with the story of an island of trash, and the concept went viral," says the project's Matt Rutherford. "The truth is there is no island of trash in any ocean. If that was the case the problem would be much easier to solve. If the trash was all in one place we could just go there and clean it up. The reality is much worse than the fairy tale: the ocean is full of plastic trash, microplastics."

Ideas for cleaning up this mess are never short on the ground. The latest, devised by nineteen-year-old Dutch student Boyan Slat, involves a device anchored to the sea bed with a number of V-shaped arms, which take advantage of natural ocean currents to catch pollution at the surface while allowing living organisms to slip under the floating barriers. The idea has been hailed by some as miraculous. But, says Stiv Wilson, policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit 5Gyres, it's offering false hope - just like all the others that have preceded it.

"I find debating with gyre cleanup advocates akin to trying to reason with someone who will argue with a signpost and take the wrong way home. Gyre cleanup is a false prophet hailing from La-La land that won’t work – and it’s dangerous and counter productive to a movement trying in earnest stop the flow of plastic into the oceans," he writes"Every time a gyre cleanup proponent has shown me a design for addressing the problem, the first thing I ask is, 'do you have the money to make 20 million of those doo-hickies?' They look at me with a puzzled look, and I just mutter, 'The ocean is really, really, really, big'."

Nor is recycling the answer. In North America, the annual 'consumption' of plastic is over 148kg per head. And the vast majority of this can only be recycled once, before heading for landfill - where, like plastiglomerate, it will remain for thousands of years. 

Plastic is by no means the only 'anthropogenic' marker showing man's impact on the planet - others include raised methane concentrations in ice cores and improved fertility in soils. It is, though, one of the most enduring - and may one day be one of the most obviously visible to archaeologists. As Kelly Jazvac, assistant professor of visual arts at Western University says, "People are putting their imprint on the earth in a way that can't be changed - it's irrevocable; it's permanent."

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder