Plastics in our oceans: the good, the bad and the very ugly

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to our planet. It is evidently bad for the environment and, if the amount of plastic in the ocean continues to grow, plastic pollution will heavily impact both wildlife and humans alike. By Dr Anna Caballé

Plastics are easy and cheap to manufacture and used for a wide variety of products. Most plastics are made of organic polymers; chains of carbon atoms often with added oxygen, nitrogen or sulphur. They are durable and their chemical nature makes them highly resistant. Unfortunately, this means that their biodegradation is incredibly slow, and it can take more than 400 years until they get degraded (smaller broken-down pieces can persist for longer). We are producing more than 300 million tons of plastic every year, and half of this is designed for single use. Considering that only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, if we do the maths, it becomes obvious that we need to reduce the amount of plastics that we use or we will drown in it.

Sadly, what used to be small amounts of plastic in our vast oceans, is fast becoming a serious threat for fish, seabirds, coral reefs and other sea creatures. Over 8 million tons of plastic – including plastic bags, bottles and micro-beads – end up in the oceans each year. Scientists and ecologists have been campaigning relentlessly to report the effect of plastics on our planet. Images of sea turtles trapped in plastic rings, birds with plastic bags around their bodies or in their stomach, and fishing nets full of bottles instead of fish are every day more frequent on TV. For example, last week a whale was found on the coast of Thailand with over 80 plastic bags in her stomach – she was not able to feed and, despite all efforts, did not survive.

Our oceans are home to half of all life on Earth, and they produce around 50% of the oxygen on the planet. A year ago, a shocking report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum stated, that if nothing changes, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. We know that without healthy oceans, humans will struggle to keep living on Earth. Additionally, the ingestion of plastic by wildlife animals is not only detrimental and toxic for them, but this plastic will eventually end up being digested by humans. It can be challenging for us to link these alarming facts and images with our daily routines, but we need to take action before it is too late.

Try avoiding take-away or ready meals, these are often wrapped in high volumes of plastic

What can we do to minimise plastic waste?

The most obvious one, do not litter: always use bins and recycle as much as possible (read the back of the products how to recycle them). In 40 countries, plastic bottle deposit schemes operate, where empty bottles can be returned in machines that give back a small deposit and have helped reduced plastic pollution significantly – in Norway, 95% of all plastic bottles are now recycled.

• Carry a re-usable bag, especially when shopping. Making people pay for using plastic bags in stores has so far proven effective. We are using around 500 thousand million plastic bags each year.

• For your weekly grocery shopping, try favouring local markets, organic shops and those stores that minimise plastic packaging (i.e. cardboard boxes are better than bottles).

Switch to re-usable water bottles and cups. The Generalitat de Catalunya recently announced the ban of single-use plastic bottles in their buildings. Similarly, the Environment commission at the Spanish congress has already approved the ban of single-use plastic utensils for 2020.

Avoid using plastic cutlery and straws – you will see many bars putting this in place. On 5th June for World Environment Day the United Nations launched the #BeatPlasticPollution campaign on social media, which was joined by celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made a viral video to terminate plastic spoons. In India, a start-up company is also successfully selling edible cutlery.

Try cooking your meals at home and avoiding take-away or ready meals, these are often wrapped in high volumes of plastic.

• Wet wipes are not biodegradable, so do not flush them down your WC.

“See it, to believe it”: watch documentaries like the BBC award-winning series Blue Planet II, which exposes the ugly effects of plastic pollution on wildlife. World-renowned broadcaster Sir David Attenborough is one of the leading voices in the need to tackle plastic in our oceans. UN Environment has also recently launched a compelling video to raise awareness amongst the public: https://youtu.be/zCNPbHuOO0o (with subtitles in Spanish), share it.

Take action: pick up litter near beaches and shorelines during your holidays or as a volunteer.

• If you can, donate to one of the many initiatives to clean/reduce plastic. Three examples: 4Ocean (set up by two surfers, organises sea and beach clean-ups. They also sell bracelets to raise funds and awareness), Precious Plastic (started as a graduation project, the idea is to build a machine to process your own plastic waste and create something new) and The Ocean Cleanup (the largest clean-up at sea, focused on cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a floating “continent” of plastics).

Everybody can make a difference, any small gestures like those mentioned here when added up, can collectively make a huge difference. In the meantime, scientists are also exploring the use of natural mutants or lab-made organisms that can specifically break some plastics down, like PET used for bottles, into safe micromolecules. The oceans make the Earth a habitable planet – let’s take care of them.

Anna Caballé (@caballe_anna) és una científica doctorada en biologia molecular i cel•lular que treballa com a investigadora biomèdica per a la Universitat d’Oxford (Anglaterra).

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