ECOS 39(4): Postgraduate winner: Ocean SOS: The challenge of plastic pollution in the marine world

ECOS 39(4)

One small step for humankind, one giant leap for our oceans: the beginning of the end of our plastic addiction.

Nature’s stress from plastic

Once upon a time, a sea turtle was found with a plastic straw stuck in its nose and became famous. This YouTube video depicting the pitiful event and showing a vet struggling to help the turtle went viral a while ago. The video was disturbing because not only was it noticeable that the animal was in pain but also because humankind caused that situation unintentionally by using plastic-straws. And just like that sea turtle, there are many other animals and parts of the natural world that succumb to plastics – a major plague of the 21st century.

Today, almost everything is made out of plastic or comes wrapped up in it. We have used and abused plastic materials without any regard for the consequences. Now we are paying the price for this complacent if not reckless attitude. Who would have thought that when Alexander Parkes invented the first plastic in 1856 that in 2050 there may be more plastic than fish in the sea? That is what is going to happen if nothing is done about it.

Fragmenting through the marine world

Plastics enter into the marine environment through various ways:

  • ineffective or improper waste management;

  • intentional or accidental dumping;

  • littering on shorelines or at sea;

  • storm water runoff.

Plastic is so durable that some items can take up to around 1,000 years to break down. Even then, plastics do not completely decompose, they just become smaller and smaller eventually turning into micro-plastics (pieces smaller than 5mm) that enter the food chain. Micro-plastics have been found in fishes and shellfish directly sold for human consumption, as well as in beverages and food items that people consume in their everyday lives such as beer, honey and even sugar.1,2,3

It has been estimated that more than five trillion plastic items, mostly micro-plastics, populate the surface layer of the world’s oceans.4 This significant quantity of ocean plastic, although widespread, tends to concentrate in certain areas, such as oceanic convergence zones and ocean gyres. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (located between Hawaii and California) is the largest of the five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans5. It contains more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that weigh an estimated 80,000 tonnes and cover a surface area of 1.6m km2. This debris proliferation in our oceans has led to the recognition of plastic pollution as a major global environmental problem.

Cleaning up and changing our ways

There are a number of current schemes to clean up marine debris in the oceans. For example The Ocean Cleanup has announced it will remove half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within the next 5 years,6 while the most promising solutions focus on the plastic sources.

Cleaning up the trash from our oceans is merely treating the symptom of a much bigger issue. To prevent plastics from entering the ocean and harming marine wildlife, we need to start reducing the use of plastics in our lifestyles and habits.

Facing the challenge of lifestyle change

We should first begin by eliminating some of the most obvious expendable plastic items from our daily lives. Plastic bags are a good example. Today, there are plenty of alternatives, from biodegradable bags to reusable cloth bags. The European Commission has implemented a new Plastic Bags Directive directing national governments to ensure that no more than 40 plastic bags are consumed annually per person by the end of 2025 (currently 100 billion bags are used per year in the EU)7. Some countries, such as the UK, Netherlands and Portugal, have opted for mandatory charges for plastic bags while others, like France and Italy, have banned all but biodegradable and compostable plastic bags. But it is not just the EU. There are many more places across the globe, like Kenya, Taiwan, Australia and the city of Seattle, that are trying to make a difference in this fight against plastic8.

And just like the plastic bags there are various other plastic products that we can dispense with in order to diminish our ecological footprint. Some of them seem so insignificant that we carelessly use them without giving a second thought to how that may affect the environment. A key example is drinking straws.

500 million is the number of plastic straws used daily in the US9. That is 182,500,000, 000,000 straws per year in the US alone!

To address the problem created by this rampant plastic use, countries like the UK and France are planning on implementing laws to ban the consumption of single-use plastic10,11. Some companies have already started to reduce their plastic straw consumption. In the UK, McDonald’s began serving paper straws only upon request in May 2018 and the Wetherspoons chain began 2018 by only serving biodegradable straws when asked – and this is just to name a few12.

Starting the revolution by tackling plastic straws

Among all the single-use plastic items, plastic straws seem to be the easiest to tackle. If we really think about it, except for a few specific circumstances, straws are completely unnecessary objects. Straws are typically used for only 15 minutes, yet they take approximately 200 years to decompose.

Bamboo straws are being promoted from Malaysia and may be part of the solution to people with disabilities who require rigid straws.

In a world in which more than 200 species of animals have been documented ingesting plastic, including turtles, whales, seals, birds, and fish13, refusing to use a plastic straw seems like an easy first step to take. In fact, for some it will seem too small a step. However, most revolutions begin with what appear to be slight and insignificant changes.

Once the facts about plastic’s impacts begin to be more deeply recognised and internalised, people’s view of their own consuming habits will hopefully change and with that so will their behaviour. Before we know it, what started with the refusal of a straw will have evolved into something more. Bringing your own bags to the supermarket, refusing a straw and using a reusable water bottle will all become common. We will wonder why we ever did these things differently.

So little by little, straw by straw, we will help protect nature and make our world a better place to live.

Want to learn more?

Check out what organizations are doing to raise awareness and combat plastic straws:

The Final Straw: http://finalstrawcornwall.co.uk

Strawless Ocean: https://www.strawlessocean.org/alternatives/

The Last Plastic Straw: https://thelastplasticstraw.org

 

References

1. Rochman, C. (2015) Anthropogenic debris in seafood: plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption, Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep14340

2. Gerd Liebezeit & Elisabeth Liebezeit (2014) Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers, Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 31:9, 1574-1578, DOI: 10.1080/19440049.2014.945099

3. Gerd Liebezeit & Elisabeth Liebezeit (2013) Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar, Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 30:12, 2136-2140, DOI: 10.1080/19440049.2013.843025

4. Eriksen M, et al. (2014) Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS One 9:e111913.

5. The Ocean Cleanup (2018) The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Retrieved May 2018 from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/

6. The Ocean Cleanup (2018) Technology. Retrieved May 2018 from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/technology/

7. European Commission. (2017) Breaking bag habits Retrieved May 2018 from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/efe/themes/waste/breaking-bag-habits_en

8. Calderwood, I. (2018) 16 Times Countries and Cities Have Banned Single-Use Plastics, Global Citizen: Environment. Retrieved May 2018 from https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/plastic-bans-around-the-world/

9. Parker, L. (2018) Straw Wars: The fight to rid the oceans of discarded plastic. National Geographic: Retrieved May 2018 from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/04/plastic-straws-ocean-trash-environment/

10. Nace, T. (2018) UK To Ban All Plastic Straws, Cotton Swabs, And Single-Use Plastics. Forbes. Retrieved May 2018 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2018/04/25/uk-to-ban-all-plastic-straws-q-tips-and-single-use-plastics/#61fae64c1138

11. Khan, S. (2016) France bans plastic cups, plates and cutlery. Independent. Retrieved May 2018 from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-bans-plastic-cups-plates-cutlery-energy-transition-for-green-growth-a7313076.html

12. BBC News (2018) Plastic straws: Which companies are banning them? Retrieved May 2018 from http://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-43567958

13. Parker, L. (2018) Animals eat ocean plastic because it smells like food. National Geographic. Retrieved May 2018 from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/11/animals-eat-ocean-plastic-because-of-smell-dms-algae-seabirds-fish/

TERESA VALE

Teresa Vale is a recent MSc Wild Animal Biology graduate student from the Royal Veterinary College (University of London). She is also one of the co-founders of an anti-plastic straw campaign, Claro Cascais, in Cascais, Portugal. 

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