Plastics Pose Biggest Threat To Oceans

Oceans choking on millions of plastic water bottles, cups, straws and single use plastic bags.

Oceans are choking on plastic junk—millions of tonnes of water bottles, soda bottles, drinking straws and single use plastic bags. Worse still, what we see floating on the surface accounts for only 5% of all the plastic litter that has been dumped into the sea. According to Ocean Conservancy, a US environmental non-profit, the other 95% is beneath the surface, where it strangles underwater creatures and wrecks aquatic ecosystems. 99% of all seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050 if nothing is done to reverse the trend.

Today, the world is producing 20 times more plastics than 40 years ago. This means that each year more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism and marine ecosystems. Only less than 14% of all plastic is recyclable, and it is high time someone came up with an innovation or technology to deal with the remaining 86%, which could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues, according to a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which works with business, government and academia to build an economy that is restorative.

Sadly, plastic waste that finds its way into the ocean will remain there for hundreds of years because plastic does not rot. In fact, plastic is so durable that the United States Environmental Protection Agency says, “Every bit of plastic ever made still exists”. Once it gets in the seas, plastic waste leaches chemicals, many of them toxic, into the seas.

“Up to 80% of all litter in our oceans is made of plastic. At the rate at which we are dumping items such as plastic bottles, bags, cups and straws after a single use, by 2050 we will have more plastics in the oceans than fish”, warns the United Nations Environment, the UN agency mandated to protect the environment.

Because of its low density, plastic litter is easily transported over long distances from source areas. The ocean undercurrents scatter it to every corner of the earth, some of it floating on the oceans and others sinking to the seabed.

According to the US-based Centre for Biological Diversity, there are “15–51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans—from the equator to the poles, from Arctic ice sheets to the sea floor”. Emerging research suggests that not one square mile of ocean surface anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.

Making matters worse, the cosmetics industry now adds tiny plastic beads called “microbeads” to hundreds of toiletries, such as body and facial scrubs and even toothpaste. These tiny particles easily go through water filtration and drainage systems to end up in the sea, where they are ingested by fish and seabirds. UN Environment warns that about 99% of all seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050 if nothing is done to reverse the trend.

Plastics in the ocean kill or harm more than 300,000 marine animals every year, said American oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Some creatures get entangled in the plastic debris, while others like seabirds, turtles, fish, oysters and mussels ingest the plastics, which end up clogging their digestive systems and causing death. Fish and birds mistake smaller plastic particles for food and feed on them in enormous quantities.

“Are our oceans dead? I would say they are not dead yet, but they are in deep trouble”, says Ms. Earle. “Plastic marine litter knows no boundaries and can wash up on any shores, including those of uninhabited islands. It is a global problem requiring a global action”.

Ms. Earle believes governments should pass laws that discourage the use of single-use plastic such as bags, cups, bottles and the micro-plastics that are used in millions of items every year. She further suggests incentives for citizens who make choices that limit their use of plastics, such as by using cloth or sisal bags for shopping, adding that countries can also tax those who use plastics and use the money for cleanups.

Big corporations have joined the global effort to turn the tide of marine litter. The technology company, Dell has announced recently that it has started using recycled plastic fished out of the sea for its product packaging.

At the individual level, choosing reusable shopping bags, cups, straws and water bottles, and saying no to personal care products that contain micro-plastics and plastic packaging can go a long way toward curbing the plastic menace. When it comes to plastics, no action is too small to make a difference.

– Zipporah Musau

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