How Plastic Pollution is Endangering Our Ocean Life

How plastic pollution is endangering our ocean life

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that plastic in our oceans is an alarming problem. Every minute, as much as two garbage trucks worth of plastic is entering our oceans and this poses a serious risk to marine life.

It’s up to each and every one of us to put a stop to this atrocity. We all recoil at the idea of plastic in our oceans, but until we actually see the effects, it’s hard to understand just how serious the situation is.

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean – the Alarming Truths

Plastic pollution in the ocean – the alarming truths

If you could see the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans, I’d bet my bottom dollar that you’d spring into action. For example, did you know that 10 millions tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year? This is having an obvious impact on sea creatures and, during tests, 100% of mussels were found to contain plastic. If things continue along the same path, it’s believed that there will be more plastic in the sea than there are fish, with the current amount doubling by 2030. In the words of Michael Jackson, it’s time we started to Heal the World.

You might think that there isn’t much you can do to help, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, by reducing the amount of plastic you use, you can play an important role. I think that a lot of people aren’t aware that most plastics are used for no more than a few minutes before being thrown away; that’s pretty alarming!

What’s more, when you discard those plastics and they end up in the ocean, they’ll stay there for a worrying amount of time. You see, plastic isn’t a biodegradable material. In fact, it’s designed to stand the test of time. That might be great when we’re actually using it but think about what that means for our oceans.

Decomposition rates for marine debris

A plastic carrier bag could take as long as 20 years to degrade and that isn’t to say that it’ll fully degrade since microplastic will remain. And that’s at the shorter end of the spectrum. Consider things like plastic bottles, which could take as long as 450 years, and those coffee pods you put in your machine; unless they’re the eco-friendly ones, they could stay in the ocean for more than 500 years!

Garbage Patches in Our Oceans

Garbage patches in our oceans

When I think about the Pacific Ocean, I imagine a vast expanse of beautiful blue waters, Pacific islands with white sandy beaches and a diverse array of marine life. What I don’t think of is garbage, but unfortunately, this is a very real part of the biggest ocean in the world.

What do you think happens to the plastic that enters our oceans? Do you imagine that it floats around aimlessly? Well, that may be the case with some plastic, but a lot of it ends up in one of the five garbage patches located at various points around the world.

  • The Indian Ocean Gyre Patch contains up to 10,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer.
  • The South Pacific garbage patch is located between South America and Australia and covers a whopping area that is two times bigger than the state of Texas!
  • There are two further garbage patches in the Atlantic Ocean; one to the north and one further south. In the northern patch, it’s thought that there are up to 200,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer.

These garbage patches are essentially an accumulation of the trash that is thrown into our oceans each year. Each one is contributed to by nearby countries and the problem is only set to get worse. The largest of these patches is the Great Pacific garbage patch which is located in the northern Pacific Ocean.

This enormous expanse of garbage covers an upsetting 1.6 million sq km (620,000 sq miles) of ocean and weighs an estimated 80,000 tonnes. It’s thought that the patch formed in 1945 and, according to research, it’s only getting worse. As things stand, there are more than 1.8 trillion individual pieces of debris in the patch.

The study of plastics within our oceans shows that it isn’t just the debris that is floating on the surface but what’s being found further down. Pieces of plastic have been found as far down as the depths of the Mariana Trench, proving that even the deepest parts of the sea aren’t safe from human pollution.

Sources of Plastic in the Ocean

Sources of plastic in the ocean

More than 300 million tons of plastic are being manufactured every year and they’re made for a whole host of reasons. The way that plastic gets into our oceans happens in a couple of different ways, but regardless of this, they still have the same detrimental effects.

Land Based-Sources

While humans are making a lot of plastic, it’s thought that only 12% is recycled annually. This means that the rest will either end up in landfill or in our oceans. Even if you don’t intend for your unwanted plastic to end up in the sea, it could still make its way there through things like stormwater runoff and sewage outflows. What’s more, there are sadly still people out there who will simply litter. All of these things are known as land-based sources of the plastic in our oceans.

What’s shocking is that there seem to be a select few rivers that end up washing as much as 90% of all ocean plastic into the sea. There are ten rivers that are the worst culprits and these include the Yangtze and the Nile.

Land-based sources might include things like plastic bottles and carrier bags. These might not seem like threatening items but when they’re littering our oceans, they could be fatal for animals like dolphins, sea turtles, and seabirds. 

Ocean Based-Sources

Fishing is big business all over the world and it’s one of the major ways that humans obtain food. But did you know that fishing boats are one of the leading causes of ocean-based sources of plastic pollution? In a lot of cases, fisheries will use ghost nets which are made from nylon instead of the old rope designs. The problem with these nets is not only do they not decompose, but they’re also dangerous to marine life.

Discarded nets entangle fish that may starve to death after becoming trapped, and that’s if they aren’t strangled to death by the netting before starvation can occur.

And it isn’t just nets that are a problem. It’s thought that more than 640,000 tons of pots, traps, and other plastic fishing gear are dumped into the ocean every year making it one of the biggest plastic polluters.

If that wasn’t enough, other sources like fallen shipping containers and packaging are littering our oceans.

Why are Microplastics so Harmful?

Why are microplastics so harmful?

You could be of the mindset that, after the 20 years it takes for a plastic bag to degrade, all is well with the world. On the assumption that we throw no further plastic into the oceans, even after it has broken down, it’ll still cause problems. And those problems come in the form of microplastics.

Since plastic is such a hardy material, when it breaks down, it doesn’t disintegrate entirely. Instead, it breaks down into micro particles known as microplastics, and these are just as dangerous to the marine environment as full-sized plastic items. What’s more, these fragments will continue to break down until they become nanoplastics, which are so small they’re dustlike and yet they still pose a problem.

It’s not only in the ocean that microplastics are an issue. Studies across 18 shorelines on all of the continents showed that these microplastics are being washed ashore and causing problems along the coast as well. Worryingly, it’s also been demonstrated that microplastics are found in every part of our environment.

Sources of microplastics

But what harm are they doing to our oceans?

For starters, marine animals are ingesting microplastics which not only have a toxic effect, but could even stunt their growth. As fish and other creatures eat these microplastics, their stomachs become full, so they take in fewer nutrients which can lead to a whole host of health problems, such as abnormal behavior and oxidative damage. 

The chemicals in these plastics can get into the marine environment and even cause poisoning to local life. What’s more, they’re so persistent that they will remain in our waters for an incredibly long time, so this isn’t an easy issue to solve.

Something that may come as a surprise is that microplastics have the ability to transfer contaminants throughout the food chain. You could easily sit at home thinking that this isn’t a problem but we have to keep in mind that humans are on the same food chain as many fish. In fact, it’s thought that, out of 240 specimens of fish and ocean life consumed by humans along the Galapagos coast, 100% came from contaminated waters.

When most people think about microplastics, they imagine fragments from broken-down plastic containers, bottles, and bags. But these are not the only issue; did you know that even the clothes on your back are putting microplastics into our oceans?

Where do microplastics come from?

Some of this comes from simply doing your laundry. When you wear synthetic fabrics and put the garments through a wash cycle, the water travels down the drain, through the sewer systems and eventually, out into the ocean. Within this water are microfibers from your clothes. The problem is so vast that a single acrylic garment could release more than 740,000 microparticles in just one wash! According to researchers, more than 5.6 million tons of microfibers have been released into our oceans since the 1950s; it’s time we did something to change this.

Effects of Plastic Pollution on Sea Life

Effects of plastic pollution on sea life

Life in the planet’s oceans is so abundant that we haven’t even discovered 10% of what’s down there. Yet, off the top of your head, I’ll bet you could name tens if not hundreds of sea creatures. So just imagine how many animals are suffering at the hands of plastic pollution.

Physical Harm to Marine Animals

Our oceans are home to a wealth of creatures, from fish and marine mammals to sea birds and precious coral reefs that provide food and shelter for so many animals. However, physical harm is coming to all of these creatures because of plastic pollution. It’s thought that plastics are hurting more than 800 known marine species. 

One of the biggest problems is that these plastics are entangling fish, sea turtles, and other marine life, strangling them. This results in injuries and entrapment, which results in starvation or death from the aforementioned injuries. For birds, not only may they sustain wounds from being entangled, but they may also drown if they’re unable to free themselves.

Another devastating effect is on sea turtles. You may have seen the viral video showing a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. Where humans cannot intervene and provide care for these animals, wounds, infections, and death are likely to occur. 

What’s more, animals are ingesting plastics, which can release toxins, cause choking or digestive blockages, and even death. Worryingly, one study showed that 100% of all marine mammals that washed up on UK shores had plastic in their digestive systems.

But perhaps one of the most shocking ways that plastics are causing damage to marine life is the harm it’s doing to our coral reefs. Coral reefs are essential habitats for thousands of marine species. The coral itself is a living creature, but it also provides food and shelter to other animals. These reefs are under threat from many things, including bleaching and climate change, but plastics are another risk on a devastatingly long list.

As I mentioned earlier with fish, ingesting plastics can give a false sense of being full, and this poses the same issue for coral. It’s also possible for the plastic to cause digestive blockages for the coral. Not only this but plastics in our waters rub against coral reefs with the ocean current, breaking them down and eroding them.

Chemical Toxicity to Marine Life

The harm done to marine life doesn’t just come from wounds, entanglement, and ingesting plastics. These plastics contain chemicals from the manufacturing process and are also able to absorb chemicals from the environment, such as heavy metals and pesticides. When an animal ingests the plastic, these are transferred to its bloodstream. It’s been shown that these chemicals could wreak havoc among species as they interfere with the early life stages of aquatic organisms.

Humans are constantly making new discoveries and this includes information on the safe use of chemicals. Substances that were used in the past, such as PCBs in the manufacture of TVs and transformers, are now banned. What’s really concerning is that these chemicals are nigh on impossible to break down and are found in marine environments all over the planet. 

Over time, these toxic substances will accumulate in the tissues of the creature. This not only does damage to the animal itself but will affect the rest of the food chain. We have already lost as much as 50% of all ocean life in the last 70 years, and if things don’t change, this will continue at a rate of 1% each year.

Impacts on the Food Chain

Humans will often turn a blind eye to environmental issues until it begins to affect them. The sad truth of the matter is that we’re only just starting to take notice of plastic pollution because it’s beginning to be a serious issue for us. Microplastics have been found in human blood for the first time, and this comes with a whole host of risks, such as the plastic getting lodged in organs. 

If I offered you a plate of food with obvious pieces of plastic in it, you wouldn’t eat it. But much of your food could contain microplastics, especially if it’s come out of the ocean.

When fish and other marine life ingest these plastics, it has a knock on effect to the rest of the food chain. A human that eats seafood regularly, could ingest as many as 11,000 microplastics in just one year! The effects on your health can be devastating, and some of the substances released by these plastics could even result in cancer, inflammation and other issues. 

And it isn’t just the quality of food that is affected. If things carry on the way they are, then there is a risk that certain species may be wiped out as a result of plastic pollution. This is largely because of a build up of plastic in the ocean. To demonstrate this, we only need to consider that in the last 40 years, the population of wild tuna has decreased by as much as 74%.

Mitigation & Prevention Efforts to Reduce Marine Plastic Pollution

Mitigation & prevention efforts to reduce marine plastic pollution

Plastic in our oceans is not a problem that happened overnight. It’s taken years for things to end up this way, and it’ll take just as long, if not longer, to put things right. However, we have to start somewhere, and that’s why there are now several international laws in place. That said, many of these are not being enforced strongly enough, so it’s now up to every country, every state and every individual to ensure that we reverse the issues we have created.

Government Regulations & Policies

Have you noticed that when you go to McDonalds, KFC, or any of your other favorite fast food chains, you no longer get a plastic straw with your drink? That’s because a lot of countries have now banned single-use plastic items such as straws and that is why you’ll also see more things being packed in paper bags as opposed to plastic. Some countries, such as Kenya, have taken this so seriously that even the mere production of plastic bags could land you a hefty fine or even time in prison. 

And these aren’t the only regulations that have been put into place. More and more governments are realizing the importance of reducing the use of plastic and this is demonstrated in their new policies.

For example, the EU is now looking to ban the use of miniature plastic bottles, like the ones you get in hotels and spas, in favor of recyclable or reusable packaging. In the United States, we have seen the introduction of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act 2021 which aims to reduce the production and use of plastic.

The UN has wasted no time in getting involved and has drafted a Plastic Treaty. While the development of this treaty is still ongoing, it is hoped that everything will be legally finalized by the end of 2024.

The Clean Seas Campaign has now been signed by leaders from more than 60 nations who have pledged to help tackle the problem of marine plastic pollution at its root.

Community Initiatives & Awareness Programs

While governments play an important role in laying out rules and guidelines for the health of our marine environments, it’s up to us as individuals to also play a role. In order to encourage people to do their bit, community initiatives are being set up all over the world.

Things like clean up events on beaches are a great way for the community to get involved. There are plenty of organizations running clean ups such as the Global Ocean Clean Up, but you can just as easily gather your friends and family and do a small clean up of your own. If everyone were to spend half an hour each week removing plastic from the water, just think of the global effect!

Education is also really important as there are plenty of people out there that are blissfully unaware of the effects of plastic pollution or even that it’s a problem at all. However, this education needs to be supported, especially for manufacturers that are suddenly expected to reduce or cut out the use of plastics entirely. Programs such as the Responsible Plastic Management Program are designed to help support organizations in using plastic more responsibly.

It is also vital that we educate our young people so that the next generation of world leaders is well-equipped to continue the fight against plastic. In some African nations, the Community Action Against Plastic Waste campaign is educating and supporting young people to lead community efforts.

Corporate Responsibility & Sustainable Practices

Some of the biggest companies in the world are now demonstrating their commitment to protecting the planet, and this comes in many forms. For example, companies like Tesla and Microsoft are initiating the use of renewable energy in their facilities, while others, like Disney, are aiming to reduce their emissions to zero!

But what about plastic waste? Well, the good news is that there are plenty of corporations that are jumping on the bandwagon and that are eager to save our oceans and reduce the use of plastic. As I mentioned earlier on, many fast food chains have now completely cut the use of plastic straws, bags, and other packaging in favor of paper or cardboard. These materials are biodegradable and, where they cannot be used, companies are looking at reusable alternatives. Many of these companies are doing this without being forced as the awareness of plastic pollution becomes greater.

Unilever is a great example of this, and the global company has pledged to reduce its use of virgin plastics by half by the year 2025. What’s more, by this date, the company pledges to make all of its plastic packaging reusable or recyclable. 

What companies are doing goes far beyond what they’re able to do within the confines of their own business. The owner of accommodation giant Airbnb has donated $25 million towards the efforts of the non-profit organization Ocean Cleanup. 

Innovative Solutions for Recycling & Plastic Alternatives

As far back as I can remember, plastic has been used for packaging, and for many years, we didn’t bat an eyelid at this. However, with what we know today, it’s important that we come up with new ways of packaging our items, and there are some pretty innovative solutions being used.

Countries all over the world are coming up with ideas including developers from Israel who have invented Tipa, a type of laminate made from compostable polymers that is ideal for packaging dry foods. In Sweden, a young inventor created a degradable type of ‘plastic’ made from potatoes that was so well received, it earned him a James Dyson Award! Or how about the Hero Packaging from Australia that looks and performs like plastic but will break down in boiling water in under one minute!

There are also lots of recycling initiatives. For example, in Ghana, one company gives people the chance to request a recycling pick up, and in return, they’re awarded digital coins, which they can exchange for food items.

Toynovo in Columbia is an organization that repairs and resells plastic toys which will go a long way to reducing the astonishing 80% of all toys that go to landfill in this country alone.

Scientists in Spain are looking at how microalgae can be used as a natural pesticide and off the back of this research, it has been suggested that the same theory could be applied to the production of biodegradable polymers as a replacement for plastics.

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