Ocean Plastic Pollution: A Global Crisis
For the past 60 years, plastic has become an unavoidable element of our lives in various forms. From plastic bags to straws, toys to clothes, furniture to technological devices, plastic is everywhere. As a result, our planet is now facing a global crisis where an abundance of plastic debris is ending up in our oceans, causing extensive harm to marine ecosystems and endangering the livelihoods of humans around the world.
How did this happen?
Currently, 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans annually, and the consequences for marine life are tragic, from poisoning fish to choking turtles. Plastic debris appear in every ocean in the world - where most plastic in our oceans comes from land. Even major rivers carry trash to our seas, like a conveyor belt, picking up more and more litter as they move downstream. Once at sea, plastic waste either remains in coastal waters or travels around the world if caught up in ocean currents.
In the remote uninhabited island of Henderson, 38 million pieces of plastic waste was discovered. Scientists discovered that these plastic items came from all over the world; from Russia, the U.S, South America, Europe, Japan and China.
How does plastic affect the ocean?
Several factors like sun, wind, and waves break plastic waste into smaller pieces once at sea. These tiny particles are called microplastics which sink to the bottom of the ocean and blanket the sea floor. These microplastics are also accidentally swallowed by sea animals as they swim.
Microplastics are a severely dangerous form of plastic as they are consumed and mistaken for food by plankton, which then moves up the food chain, eventually affecting humans as we consume seafood. What's even worse is that these microplastics are breaking further down into tinier particles, called plastic microfibers, which have been found in municipal drinking water systems and drifting through the air.
- Marine Life
I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures of sea animals entangled in plastic nets or swimming beside plastic bags. According to a study by Plymouth University, plastic pollution kills at least 100 million marine mammals each year, and more than 700 species are affected. Below are facts about how plastic pollution harms ocean animals:
- Entanglement: Items like plastic bags, discarded fishing lines, and even balloon strings are extremely fatal to marine animals who get caught and become entangled. Seabirds, turtles, fish, and even dolphins get caught in these plastic traps. This may cause mammals that rely on regular breaths of air to drown, and for others, plastic nets and strings may choke them or cut off circulation to their limbs.
- Ingestion + Starvation: Single-use plastic items like cutlery, straws, bottle caps, take-away containers and even bags are just some of the many items eaten by marine life. Once ingested, sharp plastic pieces can cause internal injury, or so much plastic builds up in their stomach until they can’t digest any other food. As a result, these animals slowly starve and die.
- Poisoning + Contamination: Once in the ocean, plastics absorb hazardous chemicals. Toxins accumulate over time onto floating pieces of plastic debris that are eventually ingested by marine life. There's a very good chance that we're eating seafood contaminated by microplastic pieces. While we don’t know whether these pollutants are being passed up the food chain to humans, it’s likely that they are an increasing risk to human health.
- Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)
Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, the GPGP is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. Located between Hawaii and California, it encompasses an area twice the size of Texas. Roughly 80% of debris in the GPGP enters the ocean by way of land and comprises mostly plastic bags, bottles, and other consumer products. The impact the GPGP has on wildlife is lethal; animals migrating or inhabiting this area are likely consuming on plastic in this patch. The human food chain is likely to be contaminated once plastic enters the marine web. This process is called bioaccumulation, and poses a serious threat to human health and livelihood.
What can be done?
The plastic ocean crisis is perhaps more clear if you’ve ever attended or seen photos of a beach clean up - hundreds of volunteers scattered along beaches picking up plastic waste. Such efforts rejuvenate local environments and empower more people to become environmental activists, adding momentum to the global movement.
But there’s no way to stop the flow of plastics into the oceans if plastic use and production keep growing. More countries and communities worldwide have to enforce restrictions on plastic production and provide ample education on the plastic pollution crisis. Luckily, some countries have already made serious progress in the fight against plastic. A particularly impressive example is France’s plans to completely eliminate single-use plastics, where a total ban on plastic cutlery, plates, and cups have already been put into place. Several states in the US have enacted plastic use legislation - New York passed a ban on grocery store plastic bags in March last year, and both California and Seattle have bans on plastic straws. Down under in Australia, several state-wide bans on single-use plastic bags have been put into place.
At the same time, the top offenders of plastic pollution (plastic producers and corporations that use plastic) have to invest in sustainable alternatives, and encourage consumers to participate in zero waste models. Plastic reduction should play a part in every corporation's Corporate Social Responsibility plans and move towards greater transparency. Now is the time to show what sustainability truly is, and make tangible and innovative changes to do their part. While consumers can continue to pressure corporations to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, governments have the authority to enact legislation on plastic-use and production, which could drastically cut plastic pollution and reduce corporation’s plastic footprints.
Finally, building better waste management systems is an extremely important step to better handle the scale of waste around the world. Countries with dysfunctional and poor waste management must invest in facilities that either sort, clean, and repurpose plastic waste to avoid more plastic debris to overflow from landfills or enter rivers; thus reducing the possibilities of more plastic trash in the ocean.
But why wait for all of this to happen? Let's start with ourselves - we all can reduce our plastic footprint [insert link to going plastic free article] and participate in marine clean up efforts.