Ocean Plastics - What's the issue and how do we fix it?

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THE ISSUE: 

Unfortunately, plastic has become part of our daily lives. Think about it for a moment, almost every second of the day you're in contact with something that is made of plastic.

Plastic is used in to manufacture everything from clothes, shoes, product packaging, phones, computers, pens, sunglasses, contact lenses, money, cars, mattresses and the list goes on. Plastic production has grown 500% over the last 30 years and is increasing at a rate of 3-5% per year.

Although plastic is a convenient material (cheap, durable and lightweight) to use in the production, the benefits of plastic are far outweighed by the negative impacts the material has on our planet. In particular the disposal of products that are designed to be used only once, such as packaging. 

The average time it takes for a plastic bottle to degrade is 450 - 1000 years, and 90% of plastics are not recycled! We as a planet consume 230 million tonnes of plastic a year!!! That's a whole lot of plastic! Take a moment to think about that figure, and think that we're only recycling 10%.

HOW PLASTIC AFFECTS THE OCEAN

There are billion of pieces of plastic currently swirling around the ocean.

The harmful result that all of this plastic in our ocean causes can be categorised into two categories. 

Ecological: The ecological impact is obviously the most important issue and the reason we must address the problem. The ecological harm that plastics cause are predominantly where animals become entangled with or ingest plastic products.

 seal entangled

Animals can be captured and entangled by plastic bags and plastic packaging causing pain, physical damage and eventual death. To give you an idea of the impact entanglement causes is the fact that around 40,000 fur seals are killed each year due to getting tangled in plastic waste or fishing gear, which contributes to a population decline of 4-6% per year.

seal entangled

Additionally, over time plastics break into smaller plastic particles becoming micro-plastics which can then be ingested and the release of associated chemicals begins making its way through the food chain spreading toxic particles throughout the food chain (which includes humans).

Social & Economic: As a result of polluted ecosystems, destinations that rely on the environment for tourism or fishing can also suffer the costs of the ever increasing ocean pollution. 

polluted beach

 

WHAT CAN BE DONE:

Well the short answer is.. stop consuming disposable plastic packaged products that are designed for a single use as much a possible. Single use plastic packaging has somehow become a normal practice for society on a large scale, whether it be plastic shopping bags, plastic drink bottles or coffee cup lids. The vast majority of people consume products that are packaged like this on a daily basis.

While it would be great to see a shift in consumer and business mindset, where a move away from "one use" disposable plastic product products would help minimise the issue. A shift in mindset and consumer behaviour takes a long time to take effect. So until governments legislate or businesses take steps to avoid the use of plastic in their packaging, consumers have the choice to make a conscious decisions for the environment to reduce our usage of disposable plastic packaging when possible.

Here's a few simple things you can do to minimise plastics ending up in landfill and the ocean:

  • Take reusable bags when doing the shopping, rather than using plastic bags every time you shop.
  • Refill water bottles, rather than buying bottled water.
  • Use refillable coffee cups, rather than getting take away cups. 
  • Stop using plastic straws. Seriously..who needs them!?
  • Use a razor with replaceable blades rather than a disposable razor
  • Don't purchase fruit that has been single wrapped from the stores.. Fruits come in a natural package, why wrap in plastic film? 

WHO'S MAKING A DIFFERENCE

We would like to draw attention to a couple organisations that are doing great work in the fight against plastic pollution. We cannot list them all, if you have a favourite that's doing great work, please add to the comments below we would love to hear about them and feature them in the future. 

THE OCEAN CLEAN UP: The ocean cleanup was started by a young Boyan Slat at age 18. Their aim is to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using their unique "passive" system.

Using their system, they estimate they can remove half the great pacific garbage patch in five years at a fraction of the cost of conventional methods.

Using conventional methods would take thousands of years to achieve the same result and would be very expensive as it would be labour intensive requiring many people on board vessels that would trawl nets behind the vessels to catch the ocean debris.

THE IMPACT OF CLEANUP

Our models indicate that a full-scale system roll-out could clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years.

Research shows the majority of plastic by mass is currently in the larger debris. By removing the plastic while most of it is still large, we prevent it from breaking down into dangerous microplastics.

Combining the cleanup with source reduction on land paves the road towards a plastic free ocean by 2050.

Below is a video explaining the technology and deployment.

 

SEA SHEPHERD

sea shepherd

Sea Shepherd, is one of our favourite organisations for all conservation efforts. They love getting in the thick of it and getting their hands dirty when needed.

The Sea Shepherd - Operation Marine Debris urges people to join their Marine Debris teams to help gather any rubbish found around the shore line.

If you're interested in lending a hand, please contact marinedebris@seashepherd.org.au for further information, you can also find more information on their facebook page here. (Please note, this is the Australian contact information, I'm sure a quick web search will have you in touch with your local clean up team where ever you are.. And if you cannot find one around you, why not start one yourself :)

Here's Sea Shepherds list of what you can do to reduce marine debris and protect our oceans?

There are many ways you can make a contribution to reducing marine debris:

  • Become a volunteer with a Sea Shepherd Australia Marine Debris Team in your local area
  • Do the 4-R’s: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle - Recover!
  • Enjoy the marine environment responsibly and dispose of your rubbish to stop it becoming marine debris
  • Consume wisely and help to reduce demand for materials that are possible sources of marine debris:
    • Avoid single-use plastic items (such as straws, cutlery, food and beverage containers, coffee cups, balloons etc.).
    • Bring your own (BYO) reusable shopping bags, containers, drink bottles or KeepCup coffee cups. Every item you BYO is one less potential piece of marine debris. The Sea Shepherd e-store has several items that replace single use (KeepCups, bags and water bottles).
  • Choose beauty/cleansing products that don't contain microbeads. To find out if a product contains microbeads check the Beat the Microbead Website
  • Support container deposit schemes and other recycling initiatives. You can search for recycling options for each product at www.recyclingnearyou.com.au or call the National Recycling Hotline: 1300 733 712.
  • Pick up rubbish when you see it and encourage others to dispose of theirs responsibly
  • Beach/waterway clean-ups provide a great way for people to have an immediate, positive impact on our coastal environment. Join a Sea Shepherd beach clean-up in your area (check our Facebook page to see if there is one scheduled in your area). If there aren't any happening in your area and you are interested in organising one, contact us via email marinedebris@seashepherd.org.au

Final Words

We only have one planet, our growing population is only going to continue to harm ecosystems unless we change the way we think and make conscious decisions to minimise the harm we do. We now have the technology to minimise our impact, we just need to shift our mindset and use more eco-friendly materials where possible. 

Further Reading:

Silent Killers: The dangers of plastic bags to marine life

Microplastics in the sea a growing threat to human health, United Nations warns

Plastics Ain't so Fantastic

Marine debris: biodiversity impacts and potential solutions

conservation make a difference Ocean