Warning: this article contains photos of animals which readers may find unsettling.
Yes, you read that right, according to research by the World Economic Forum, by 2050 you are more likely to bump into some plastic than a fish whilst taking a dip in the big blue .
Plastics are one of the most versatile materials on the planet today, with their usage increasing 20-fold since the 1960s and showing no sign of stopping any time soon. By 2036 this could double and if the proportion of plastic that is recycled remains low – only 14% compared to 58% of paper and 90% of iron – our planet’s oceans will continue to fill up with the stuff. And it really is land-based plastic pollution that is the problem, since 80% of marine litter comes from the terrestrial environment .
Way back in 1997, it was estimated that every year 6.4 million tons of litter enters the ocean. UNEP studies from 2005 and 2006 suggested there could be 13,000 pieces of plastic floating per km2 or 46,000 pieces per square mile . However, these are just best guess approximations – we really have no idea exactly how much rubbish there could be out there…
Sadly, we see its impacts everywhere we look. An estimated 1 million, yes million, seabirds die every year from entanglement in plastics and litter. Hundreds of thousands other marine creatures also die every year from entanglement, ingestion, poisoning and drowning because of plastic litter .
As many heart-breaking photos show, whales, sea turtles and seabirds are constantly sustaining horrific and often fatal injuries from becoming tangled in fishing gear, netting, beer can packaging and many other items of litter. Many seabirds are found with copious amounts of plastics (bottletops, netting etc.) in their guts and in some cases other marine animals can die from starvation because plastics block their stomachs.
Plastics also adsorb toxic substances and so can contribute to bioaccumulation of poisonous chemicals like PCBs, DDE and nonylphenols through the food chain – these might not only affect the health of an animal, but also its reproduction and behaviour, causing concerning population level effects of reduced fertility and birth abnormalities.
Plastics even contribute to the movement of invasive species, providing them with transport to new locations and facilitating their spread.
Another more serious problem, recognized quite recently, are microplastics. Plastics take thousands of years to degrade but before this plastics form microscopic pellets that are almost impossible to collect and dispose of. These microplastics are spreading throughout the ocean environment, through the food chain and on to our plates. Fish will become increasingly contaminated with these microplastics, which in turn leach out the poisonous chemicals mentioned earlier and pose a serious health risk to any animal that eats them – including us. All sorts of other organisms have been shown to ingest them – even corals, as if they need that right now !
So this is all very doom and gloom, but at the end of the day how are we going to fix this? All this litter, turning into microplastics, spreading out hopelessly through the ocean. Well first of all we can stop it getting into the oceans. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have now all imposed plastic bag charges which have had some promising results – Tesco reported a 78% drop in single-use bags in England and Asda reported an over 90% drop in Scotland, Wales and Northern Island. Many supermarkets have put the money raised from the charges towards charitable causes – such as marine conservation – which is a win-win situation for marine life. We can of course go much further though by banning single-use plastic bags altogether, along with phasing out single-use plastic bottles and reducing unnecessary packaging on all sorts of food and commercial products.
But how do we deal with all the litter already in the oceans? It’s not going to go away any time soon after all, since plastics can last 1000s of years before they degrade and long before then turn into microplastics.
Well some ingenious engineers and scientists are coming up with some amazing ways of trying to remove this litter. One big problem that has created the Giant Pacific Plastic Garbage Patch is that ocean gyres, giant spiralling water movements caused by ocean currents and the spin of the Earth, concentrate litter into central areas of the ocean. Another patch has appeared in the Atlantic and they show no signs of going away.
Boyan Slat, a Dutch teenager, came up with the idea of erecting large, angled barriers in the water which take advantage of the ocean currents to collect plastic. Although at first over-hyped and subsequent failures were slated by critics, refined versions of the project seem like they could be a low-cost and effective solution. It is predicted that these barriers could remove up to 42% of litter in the North Pacific Gyre in 10 years . Presumably the idea could also be applied to the four other garbage patches in the North and South Atlantic, South Pacific and South Indian Ocean too.
Another smaller scale and even simpler idea is the sea vac. As its name suggests, the sea vac essentially hoovers up litter in the sea by pumping water from the cylinder to the shore to set up a flow of water into a mesh ‘catch bag’. An immediate issue you might have with this is that surely it must also pull in marine life too, right? Well apparently in preliminary tests the sea vacs haven’t caught any fish since they seem to avoid them – whether this is true for other marine life remains to be seen. Here’s a little video of the invention.
At the end of the day though, for all the new and brilliant inventions people try and come up with to remove plastic from the oceans, the problem is only going to go away when we reduce our consumption and wastefulness of plastic. There are so many things you can do to help, why not try:
- Using ‘bags for life’ or reusing plastic bags is a simple one when you pop out to do some shopping.
- DON’T BUY PRODUCTS THAT CONTAIN MICROPLASTICS! Especially facial products that can wash microplastic beads down the sink and straight into the ocean.
- Don’t buy food with tonnes of packaging on – try and find ways to get food using less plastic such as at farmers/street markets (which often have bargains!)
- Not buying drinks in plastic bottles is another, or making sure you always recycle plastic bottles.
- Never buy water in plastic bottles – use a water bottle instead!
- Always put rubbish in a bin or recycle it if you can – if you can’t find a recycle bin, hold on to it until you can find one or tell your local council that there is a lack of them in a certain place.
- Go on beach clean-ups and litter-picks in your local area – you can do your bit to stop wildlife eating or getting caught up in beach plastic.
- Lobby governments and companies to phase out plastic bags, reduce packaging for products and food and encourage plastic recycling
If we all start making small positive changes like these we can really make a difference – all it takes is just a bit of thought! And as I said before it’s in your interests to make these changes – the litter that you throw away that makes its way into the ocean ends up on your dinner plate and in your bag of fish and chips.
What goes around comes around – so start being plastic-conscious today!