Seas of Plastic

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A wise man once said that “humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty”. But just how dirty have the Earth’s oceans become?

Greenpeace hit the headlines in London a few weeks ago, as activists placed a striking sculpture – “Plasticide” – outside Coca Cola’s headquarters in Oxford Circus.  The artwork, designed by marine sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor (see below), depicts seabirds regurgitating plastic on a beach next to a picnicking family. The children are visibly disturbed; the adults, seemingly, turn a blind eye. It is a vivid representation of the so-called ‘ocean plastic crisis’, and a reminder to one of the world’s largest drinks corporations of its responsibility to the planet. A reminder that plastics are one of the most pressing threats to the future health of marine environments. Even now, research being conducted by the University of Tasmania’s Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies is suggesting that previous estimates of the extent of the plastic washing up on the Earth’s beaches might be way wide of the mark.

Plasticide installed outside the National Theatre
“Plasticide”, produced by Jason in collaboration with Greenpeace and photographed outside the National Theatre. It seeks to bring home the stark reality of plastic pollution on our oceans and marine life. The sculpture was lifted into position outside Coca Cola’s Oxford Circus HQ in April 2017, before being removed. Photo Credit: KIKA/WENN.com

Here’s the problem, and yes, it might be an obvious one: in recent decades, Earth’s oceans have become a dumping ground for plastics. Conventional thinking is that we dump about 8 million tonnes of plastic into the oceans annually. That’s quite a big number, so let’s break it down to try and get a sense of just how much plastic that is. 8 million tonnes is roughly the same as the following: 250,000 African elephants, 5,000 blue whales, 350 fully-fuelled Saturn V rockets (that’s the one that sent man to the moon in ’69), 80,000 London buses, 2,200 Boeing 747 “Jumbo” jets, and 11,000,000 average-sized Americans.  Or, if you’d like it succinctly: it’s one truckload of plastic being dumped in the oceans every minute. We are, in other words, creating seas of plastic.

ocean plastic.jpg
Beaches around the world show the scars of years of uncontrolled plastic pollution.  This beach on Turneffe Atoll in Belize is just one of thousands strewn with plastics.  Photo Credit: National Geographic/Waterframe, Alamy

The problem is most visible on beaches, where wind and tide deposit a fraction of the plastic waste in the oceans.  Here at least, it is relatively easy to clear away. But as anyone who has organized or participated in a beach clearance will know, you can clean a beach of plastics one day, only to come back the next week and be presented with the same sight: sand, sea, and stone…and more plastic.

 

“Once your eyes are open to the plastic that’s out there, it’s really hard to stop seeing it…everywhere

Amanda Wellschbillig of the “Wasteless Pantry” near Perth, Western Australia, speaking to Sky News in 2017

 

The majority of plastic in the oceans does not fully biodegrade; it is broken up into smaller and smaller pieces by heat, saltwater, and solar radiation. Whether whole, or degraded into “microplastics”, it poses a significant, unprecedented and indiscriminate threat to marine species. Almost 90% of seabirds are thought to have indigestible plastic – plastic bottle-tops, cigarette lighters, straws and much besides – in their stomachs.  Sea turtles similarly mistake plastic bags for food sources, such as jellyfish. The plastics block the turtles’ digestive systems and eventually kill them. A 2013 study of Loggerhead turtles found that 15 percent of young turtles surveyed had ingested enough plastic to dangerously obstruct their digestive systems.

Whale plastic bag
A sperm whale, washed up on the Spanish coast, died after consuming plastic debris. Photo Credit: eia-international.org (2015)

The largest marine creatures are also at risk. In February 2017, a whale which had beached itself on Norway’s coast was found to have over 30 plastic bags (alongside other human waste) in its stomach.  Whilst most countries have now banned commercial hunting of whales, we should not be blind to the fact that our everyday actions can be just as deadly to these majestic animals.  It’s truly shameful that they, and other marine species, continue to be killed simply because we cannot control our waste habits.

 

“Animals inadvertently consume plastic and plastic waste, which causes them to suffer, and at worst, causes them to starve with full stomachs.”

Robert Habeck, Environment Minister for the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, speaking to the Guardian in 2016

 

We’ve known about this problem for some time. But the ocean plastics crisis may only be brought into sharper relief if (as it may do) it becomes seen as a threat to human health.  The mechanism is straightforward enough. Plastics enter the oceans, and hence the marine food-chain. At the top of that food-chain, knife and fork in hand, is us (with due deference to other cutlery). Simply put: fish eat plastic; we eat fish; hence, we eat plastic.  And a lot of seafood contains microplastics – plastics which have degraded to less than 5mm in size. Numbers? Difficult to say, but as an indication, close to a third of fish in the English Channel contain microplastics.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: the extent and manner in which microplastics affect fish and human biology is far from being fully understood.  Much more research is needed here. So please don’t cobble together a hastily improvised sandwich-board emblazoned with a suitably apocalyptic “PLASTIC FISH WILL KILL US ALL” slogan and cause a scene in your local supermarket’s seafood aisle. That would most likely be – at best – premature.  Indeed, initial studies are suggesting that maybe as little as 1% of microplastics ingested by humans are taken up by body tissue; 99% simply pass through us. Sure, 1% isn’t much. But we would do well to better understand how that 1% affects our bodies, and we would do just as well to stop dumping 8 million tonnes of potentially very harmful plastic waste into the Earth’s oceans each year.

So that’s the bad news dealt with…sort of… so what’s the good news? Well, the good news is that we are seeing gradually more recognition of the ocean plastic problem, and that it is within our capabilities to do something about it. Some are leading the way. You might have heard that Adidas have just launched a trainer, the TERREX Climacool, made from recycled ocean plastics. You may be familiar with Dutch aeronautical engineering student turned entrepreneur Boyan Slat, who’s developed technology design to clean up the Pacific “garbage patch” (a “gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean”).  Much more needs to be done, but these are steps in the right direction.

Slat.jpg
Dutch engineering student/entrepreneur Boyan Slat, photographed in Delft in 2012. The large sketch on the wall behind Slat is of his pioneering ocean-cleaning technology. He now heads “The Ocean Cleanup”, an organization based in the Netherlands, which is seeking to put his ideas into practice on a large scale. Photo Credit: AFP/The Ocean Cleanup

Cleaning up the plastic already in the Earth’s oceans is, however, only one side of the battle. A sustainable solution has to include ways of stopping more plastic ending up in those same oceans in the first place. Again, we’re seeing some innovative solutions from companies which are developing products made from alternatives to traditional plastics. Governments – local, national and supranational – naturally have a role to play too, since legislation can be the most effective and far-reaching means of effecting change. But this is also where you come in.

***

As with most environmental issues, there’s different levels at which the ocean plastic problem can be tackled. It can start with you. It might be doing something as simple as not buying so many disposable plastic bottles (take a look at the work of Swedish-based Yuhme, for instance). It might be buying loose fruit and veg rather than packaged groceries. It might be reusing plastic bags (or using non-plastic bags) when shopping. It might be organizing a plastic clearance at your local beach. It might simply be retweeting this article, spreading the word, and making more and more people aware of ocean plastic pollution.

For starters, you could do much worse than visiting Sky’s Ocean Rescue site, where you’ll find information about plastic pollution, and what you can do to help.

I’d also recommend taking a look at Adidas’ trainer made from recycled ocean plastic. You might not want to buy a pair, but it’s a great example of the ingenuity which can be applied to solve environmental problems, and a reminder that we have the means of protecting the natural world for future generations: often all that’s needed is the will to do so!

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