By Emma Thomson
By 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, according to a new World Economic Forum report. Every year 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced, the same weight as all of the adults on earth, for daily items such as food wrapping, carrier bags, and disposable cutlery—of which only 14% is collected for recycling. Every year, humans put an average of 8 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans.
We throw away approximately half of the plastic after just one use. Much of this waste plastic ends up in the oceans, with a negative impact on both ocean ecosystems and humans. Plastic pollution is being found even in the oceans of the polar regions. Like in Happy Feet, where an animated penguin develops a troublesome cough from plastic rings stuck around its throat, real animals are facing the plastic threat. Around 90% of seabirds have consumed some form of plastic (this has been a particular struggle for Malaysian Albatrosses, all of which are believed to have consumed plastic), easily mistaken for food. Similarly, sea turtles regularly consume plastic bags that resemble jelly fish. This is preventing animals from following their normal diet, and can ultimately lead to their death, through malnutrition or choking. It is plausible and likely that some marine species will become extinct as a result of our actions, with 100,000 animals already dying annually due to the volume of plastic in the ocean. In addition to this, when plastics are degraded in the ocean, the toxic chemicals which are leached from them are then consumed by fish, finally making their way into the human food chain.
This could have prominent impacts on human health, but it also has the potential to be hugely economically damaging. Floating and washed up plastic is an eyesore; it affects tourism, which is a great source of income, and increases the cost of beach maintenance due to litter removal.
However, not all hope is lost for our oceans and beaches. As the problem increases so too does the number of people who feel that a change needs to be made—and, with them, the number of initiatives which have the aim of clearing up our oceans. The ‘Ocean Cleanup Project’, founded by a 21 year old, focuses around the idea of using a large boom or barrier to gather all of the plastic and waste in part of an ocean into one area, where it is then collected. The plan is to then sell the collected plastic to large companies who can reuse it, generating a source of income that can fund the project.
Another initiative is based upon the idea of a bin for the sea, accurately named the SeaBin Project. This is essentially an automated rubbish bin, which catches rubbish, oil, fuel, and detergents which end up in the oceans, by sucking up the water into a pump which is fitted onto a dock or a ship, filtering the litter out of the water and into a natural bag which can be emptied and managed by one person. This project however needs funding to become more than just a successful prototype, but, in combination with the Ocean Cleanup Project, alongside many other smaller scale projects such as local beach clean-ups, has the capacity to change the fate of our oceans and undo the damage we have inflicted on them.
As for us—what can we do? Recycle our plastic products, or better still, try to reduce our consumption. So maybe our attitude should not solely be to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but also to refuse. Refuse to take a plastic straw at the bar, refuse to take a plastic carrier bag for your few items, and refuse to let this issue develop further. With such promising initiatives as the ‘Ocean Cleanup Project’, alongside many others, it is possible that one day the oceans will be plastic free. This issue is clearly a sign of one thing: our attitudes towards plastic and the planet need to change, and maybe we are getting there.
Photograph: Andrew (polandeze) via Flickr