When you discard a plastic water bottle it’s difficult to imagine the damage it can do to a sea turtle swimming off the Mexican coast, but most plastics in our ocean come from household and commercial waste. Major rivers can carry plastics out to sea where wind and tides can transport them all around the world.
It can take up to 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose and, in that unimaginably long period of time, it starts to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. A variety of species from turtles to birds and even larger creatures like whale sharks can ingest plastics causing damage to internal organs or blocked intestinal track, which can lead to starvation.
But plastic doesn’t have to be ingested to be deadly. Wildlife can become entangled in debris like discarded fishing nets, plastic bags or the plastic rings around cans. They can then die of drowning, suffocation or strangulation.
If animals are eating plastics, we can be sure that we are too. Small pieces have been found in the marine animals that we eat. In a study, partially funded by Plastic Oceans International at Arizona University, it was discovered that plastic particles have been found in human organs.
‘We now know that these plastic particles don’t just pass through our digestive system. Instead, they, along with known toxins attached to them, are indeed making their way into human tissue’
Dr Charlie Rolsky, Director of Science for Plastic Oceans International
Why are oceans so important?
The oceans cover 70% of the earth’s surface, produces over half of the world’s oxygen and absorb 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere. Ocean based occupations and recreational activities contribute trillions of dollars to our economy and ingredients from the sea are used in many of our food produce and medicines. It’s estimated that sea food accounts for 16% of the world’s protein intake.
The bio-diversity in the oceans is vast. According to the World Register of Marine Species, there are currently 240,741 accepted marine species and every year around 2,000 species that are new to science are added to the register. Given the tremendous depths and inhospitable environments it’s not yet possible to truly say how many organisms live in our seas, but we do know that some are vital to our survival. Plant like organisms called Phytoplankton produce oxygen through photosynthesis and can generate 50% of the earth’s oxygen. They also consume carbon dioxide transferring 10 gigatones of carbon from the atmosphere and into the sea each year.
The sea also absorbs heat from the sun, especially at the equator, creating differences in sea temperature and salt content, causing the water to sink. This also happens at the poles where freezing water creates ice. The remaining water becomes denser in salt and again sinks to the bottom. These differences in temperature and density, as well as surface wind driven currents and geographical differences on the sea bed, can cause upwelling from the depths and so they cycle starts again. These cycles are known as currents and they regulate the climate and weather patterns on our planet by transporting warm air from the equator to the poles. This is essential to the survival of life on Earth as no part of the planet can become too hot or too cold.
Water vapour from our oceans causes clouds to form which, in turn, transports water from the sea to the land through rainwater. This rainwater helps our rivers to form and supports plant life on land including our crops. Without this water desert conditions would start to form causing wild fires and decreased food and habitat resources.
‘We are connected to the ocean with every breath we take. Half the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean; her fish feeds us; her waters sustain our economies. The seas, a vital resource to our very existence, is under threat! Making people aware of existing problems is the first step towards protecting our seas.’
Manuel Marinelli, Founder of Project Manaia.
How does plastic end up in the ocean?
We are producing plastics at an exponential rate. It’s been calculated that half of all plastics ever manufactured have been produced in the last 15 years. Improper and illegal disposal of this waste is the biggest cause of plastics in our oceans as wind and rainwater can carry rubbish from landfill and dumpsites into the rivers and out to sea. Currents and tides can carry this rubbish all around the world as well as down into the deepest depths of the ocean. A supermarket plastic bag was recently found in the deepest part of the ocean, The Mariana Trench in the South Pacific, which is 11,000 meters (36,198 feet) deep.
Plastics can also find their way to the sea via our drainage systems. For example. every time we wash clothes made from synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon and Lycra, they shed microplastics into our water system. The hotter and longer the wash, the more they shed. These microplastics have been found in many products that we consume including seafood, chicken, tap and bottled water as well as salt and beer. Microplastic pollution is everywhere. It can blow in the wind and come down in the rain, so there is no part of our planet that is safe.
What can we do to reduce plastic in the ocean?
According to Greenpeace a truckload of plastic enters our ocean every minute, so how can we reduce our contribution to this terrifying statistic? It might feel daunting and possibly unrealistic to commit to a plastic-free lifestyle, but there are changes we can make to decrease the amount of plastic waste we generate. It’s not about doing everything perfectly. It’s about trying everyday and not giving up. Here are some key first steps:
- Microbeads are tiny particles of plastic that are usually put into cosmetics like exfoliates and toothpastes. It’s important to check the labels of these products and find alternatives where possible.
- Avoid using single-use plastic bags, cutlery, straws, coffee cups and drinks bottles. Carry reusable coffee cups, water bottles and possibly a spork. You might not remember them every time, but even half the time can significantly reduce your plastic waste.
- Make informed decisions when shopping, Look for sustainable sources, refillable bottles and food items with minimal or no packaging. Avoid disposable plastic products like toothbrushes and razors. There are alternatives. Remember it’s waste from your bin that can end up in the ocean, so dispose of waste responsibly and recycle when you can.
- Find alternatives to clingfilm. This type of plastic is incredibly difficult to recycle, Try alternatives like bees wax food wrap instead.
- Wash your laundry less and on fast cycles at low temperatures. Put microplastic filters in with your load. Don’t use the delicates wash as it uses twice as much water as a normal cycle. Avoid buying synthetic materials and, if you can, shop second hand clothes.
- Participate in any beach or river clean-up activities that are happening in your community.
- Put pressure on governments to change legislation around plastic production and waste. Speak to your local MP, sign petitions and, most importantly, vote.
By 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish, so don’t be afraid to fight for your planet.
Writer – Caroline Anderson for Project Manaia, July 2022