We’ve finally reached that point – the one at which we can no longer bury our heads in the proverbial sand. The magnitude of the plastic problem facing our oceans has reached such a level that even the most indifferent can no longer ignore it. Consequently, over the past year or so, we have been seeing the issue in the news more and more. The public is now aware, and this awareness continues to grow.
The magnitude of the plastic problem facing our oceans has reached such a level that even the most indifferent can no longer ignore it
It’s driven in part by the mounting scientific evidence that is surfacing, in addition to the growing number of related incidents proliferating around the globe. “We’ve had stories like huge dumps of litter on the beaches of Bali, which is familiar to many of us in the West. We’ve seen large [swathes] of waste appearing, seemingly spontaneously, off the Caribbean coast and Latin America. There’s even been fatalities or disasters associated with plastic waste; in Sri Lanka, for example,” said Dr Malcolm Hudson, Associate Professor in Environmental Sciences at Southampton University.
Undoubtedly, David Attenborough’s incredibly popular Blue Planet II has also played a role in this growing societal consciousness. “It makes for very spectacular and very emotive television – seeing a negative story among all the beautiful things in the natural world,” Hudson added. Indeed, during the docu-series, and in the final episode in particular, viewers see first-hand just how much plastic is floating around our seas, the impact it has on marine life, and the damage it can inflict on the food chain. The reaction of most is one of sheer sadness: a disaster is all the more disconcerting when we know it could have been avoided.
At what price
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it is estimated that around eight million tonnes of plastic flow into the oceans each year – but as great as this figure is, others believe it has actually been underestimated. Even more disturbing are the projections if we continue down our existing pathway: a report published by the foundation on behalf of the United Nations claims that by 2050 plastic waste will outweigh fish in the world’s oceans.
Amount of plastic flowing into the oceans every year
Microplastic particles present in the oceans
Plastic pieces in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Acting as a sad symbol of this intensifying mess is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an ocean current in which huge swathes of plastic debris gather. Located between California and Hawaii, it is believed to contain 1.8 trillion plastic pieces and span 617,000 square miles – which, to put this into perspective, makes it roughly three times the size of France.
Unsurprisingly, all this plastic is having a direct impact on marine life. As recent reports indicate, creatures both large and small are ingesting plastic materials, believing them to be food, and starving in the process. They also act as poisons in the gut, while their very presence can cause severe digestive problems that lead to death. Sea birds are affected too: according to research undertaken by Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania, every bird on Australia’s Lord Howe Island now has plastic in its stomach.
In addition to the deeply detrimental impact that plastic pollution is having on marine life, there are other underlying costs too, particularly with regards to both marine and coastal activities, and in turn the economic benefits that local communities and nations derive from them. Judith Schäli, a researcher at the World Trade Institute, told Mrassociates that environmental damage to marine ecosystems is estimated to equate to some $13bn per year. Elaborating further, she said: “Related economic costs include those linked to clean-up operations [and] litter removal.” According to Schäli, the cost to marine industries in the Asia-Pacific region is estimated to be around €1bn ($1.17bn) per year. But even that is not the whole picture: as she explained, the presence of alien invasive species that live on floating plastic debris can also result in serious economic losses, though the exact figure is difficult to quantify.
The fishing industry is an obvious economic victim in the declining health of our oceans. As well as obstructing motors, plastic debris can also cause the loss of or damage to fishing equipment; the result is the need to repair or replace gear, or even entire vessels. Even the time taken to clean litter from propellers and nets adds to the cost for fishers. Then there is the additional loss of revenue that culminates from fewer fish being caught, and the fact that what is caught nowadays is often of poorer quality; simply, less healthy oceans inevitably leads to less healthy fish. Collectively, these factors can weigh heavily on the industry as a whole, as well as on the individuals whose livelihoods depend on the seas.
The fishing industry is an obvious economic victim in the declining health of our oceans
Another vital industry that is now suffering first hand from marine litter is the tourism industry. Many popular destinations rely heavily on the lure of pristine beaches, sparklingly clean waters and beach-fronted hotels. But as many tourists have witnessed in recent years, the reality has become a far cry from depictions online and in glossy magazines. Numerous beaches in the Caribbean and Thailand are now lined with a tangled mess of plastics, putting many off revisiting these sorry sights. The associated impact to wildlife only adds to the rebuke of travellers. Speaking about the economic cost to the tourism industry as a result of a loss in aesthetic value, Schäli noted: “It was reported that in South Korea, a single marine litter event caused a revenue loss of about €29m [$34m] in 2011 compared to 2010, as a result of over 500,000 fewer visitors to the country.”
While oceans flow around each continent and are entities we all share, marine plastic pollution can vary from country to country. Schäli explained: “The degree to which countries are affected by marine litter [varies depending] on their level of exposure, but also on their economy and level of income. Countries that largely depend on coastal tourism or the fishing industry are more vulnerable to the economic consequences of marine plastic pollution. Overall, the costs of marine plastic pollution are not necessarily borne by the polluters. Marine plastic pollution hence involves equity concerns… In addition, coastal municipalities, governments and local communities often have to bear high costs for clean-up operations, awareness-raising activities and education.”
As shocking as these consequences are, sadly, this is just half the story – and the better half at that. The most concerning culprit is actually the prevalence of microplastics – tiny particles that have either broken up from fragments of plastics and continue to become smaller over time, or have been purposefully engineered for consumer products. The cosmetic industry, for example, has been using ‘microbeads’ for some time now, promoting their ability to thoroughly scrub skin, which has made them wildly popular in the process. These microbeads are so small that they easily flow through filtration systems and end up in waterways that lead into the sea. Both types of microplastics are having possibly irreparable damage to our oceans, particularly due to their volume: the UN Environment Programme approximates that as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles are present in the oceans.
“I think the microplastics are potentially a bigger problem than the macroplastics,” said Hudson. “With the large stuff, it’s visible and it’s difficult to clean it up, but we can envisage ways of removing it from the sea. But with the microplastics that can be just a few microns long – they could be smaller than the diameter of a piece of hair – these are not even visible, so you can’t even see that the problem is there, and that makes them much more difficult to track in the marine environment… And the longer we have plastic waste going into the sea, both large and small, the more microplastics we’re going to get in the end.”
All types of sea creatures are ingesting microplastics each day, and as they move up the food chain, these plastics will inevitably end up in the human gut. “The plastics have materials in them, such as plasticising agents, that may be harmful for living things and human health… But they also absorb pollutants that are already in the marine environment. So organic materials, pesticides and pharmaceuticals that end up in our marine systems will tend to get concentrated in these tiny particles,” Hudson told Mrassociates. “We could swallow these particles when, say, eating seafood. And if they’re very small, they might have the potential to pass toxic chemicals or maybe carcinogens into our bodies that may disrupt our hormone systems – we don’t know what the effects of them will be.”
Marine plastic debris affects multiple industries, our global economy, and it could well be affecting our health too
With such stories proliferating in the news and beginning to weigh on the consumer conscience, the UK banned the use of microbeads in the cosmetic industry in January 2018. While this move is a massive boon for the environment, the problem doesn’t stop there, for it’s not just the cosmetic industry that is at fault here – and neither is it just the UK. In terms of the former, plastic beads have various industrial uses as well, such as sand blasting and wastewater treatment. As such, until these areas are also addressed – and in all countries, for that matter – we are continuing to pump these tiny creations into the sea.
There is also another plastic pollutant that has unknown consequences, but has received far less attention in the media: microfibres. These plastic fibres are generated by washing synthetic garments; each time, thousands of synthetic fibres are discarded into washing machines, which are then passed into water treatment systems. “Our water treatment systems aren’t designed to remove them, so they can pass straight into our rivers, estuaries and coastal waters, and then they’re lost in the marine environment in the long-term – with potentially the consequences we’ve talked about,” said Hudson. Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t stop at synthetic clothing: as Hudson explained, plastic fibres also originate from articles such as fishing nets and plastic ropes, which, once discarded into the ocean, will continue to break down until they become microfibres, another invisible enemy with which we must contend.
Clean-up initiatives, while well-intentioned and helpful to an extent, are limited in their effectiveness. Such operations range from simple beach clean-ups carried out by willing volunteers to much-researched, more innovative methods. The latter most famously refers to a scheme thought up by Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, designed to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. On May 11, 2017, Slat’s organisation, the Ocean Cleanup, unveiled a new design for the system and its deployment, in what will be the world’s first attempt to clean up the biggest mass of ocean plastic on the planet since it was discovered in 1997.
Slat’s device, which is officially called ‘Boomy McBoomface’, lets the ocean do all the hard work. Namely, currents funnel plastic debris into solid V-shaped screens, which are held in place by inflated plastic booms that are anchored to the sea floor. The next stage of the process will involve loading the plastics onto vessels to be taken back to land and recycled. It is hoped that Boomy McBoomface will collect half the mass of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – which equates to a whopping 40,000 metric tons – within five years.
“It’s very impressive, but it needs to be done over a long time period, over a very large scale, and there are also problems with carrying it out. So where we have these large-scale rafts of plastic in the centre of our major oceans, there is marine life associated with that, so there will be impacts of removing them at the same time,” Hudson explained. “We also have the question of what we do with so much plastic waste when we bring it on shore, so we’ve got to find a way of dealing with that in with minimal environmental impact. Also, large booms – that are, again, plastic material – are likely to degrade. So while I think these are positive ideas, they may have negative aspects to them that we haven’t foreseen yet.”
While certain countries are impacted more than others (see Fig 1) and some nations are better equipped to tackle the challenge, marine plastic debris is a problem we all share. It affects multiple industries and, in turn, our global economy, and it could well be affecting our health too. Aside from such direct costs, there are, of course, also those to marine life – causing animals to suffer and die as a result of our reckless use and disposal of plastics.
The existing problem is frightening, but the first port of call is to stop it from becoming worse. “We need to look at our usage of plastics and find ways to use them more wisely,” said Hudson. This is an important point, for plastic itself is not necessarily the enemy – it’s our relationship with it that is causing so many problems for the natural environment. Hudson shared some suggestions for ways forward with this controversial, yet essential, material to human life: “We can design ways that plastic can be reused, remodelled or remade so that it doesn’t become a waste product, some of which will be lost and some of which will end up in our natural systems.”
The existing problem is frightening, but the first port of call is to stop it from becoming worse
Schäli agreed: “Corporations that are involved in the market of plastic products, especially consumer products, play an important role in the shaping of our production and consumption patterns. They influence consumer behaviour [through] commercials and subliminal advertisement in packaging. By their material choices and product designs, they determine the durability of their products, as well as their recyclability, biodegradability, ecotoxicity and susceptibility to end up in the environment. They further influence consumers’ product choices by providing or withholding information about the materials they use, including the additives with potentially toxic or otherwise hazardous effects.
“In order to reduce their impact, companies should be aware of, and take responsibility for, the whole life cycle of their products, including disposal… They can redefine their business models and overcome the phenomenon of planned and perceived obsolescence, which pushes consumers to constantly renew their belongings by artificially limiting the service life of the products or suggesting that they are outdated.”
Businesses can also reduce packaging quantities and avoid hazardous chemicals, particularly toxic and bioaccumulative substances. Using recyclable or biodegradable materials is a positive step in the right direction. Schäli explained: “[Corporations] can engage in research and development in order to find technical solutions to specific problems in their field of activity, such as textile fibres from washing machines or microplastics from tyre wear. They can make sure that maritime transport of their goods is safe and that the ships meet international standards and comply with the regulations, including the prohibition [of disposing of] plastic wastes at sea. Finally, they can engage in awareness-raising campaigns, educational activities or coastal clean-ups.”
Governments too have a vital role to play, as they can establish the necessary legal requirements, as well as incentives and disincentives, to curb marine plastic pollution. “From an economic point of view, massive marine plastic pollution may bring us to rethink our economic models, based on raising consumption levels and a high throughput of resources, and our throwaway lifestyles,” Schäli noted. A big rethink of our disposable attitude is crucial, but as considerable as this change is, it can start today, with each individual. For now is the time for action: we can no longer stand by and watch the demise of our oceans – without them, we too will perish.
Creating change – significant change – takes time, resolve and money. But the cost if we stand by and simply continue our current habits will be startlingly worse than it is at present. Fortunately, individuals, businesses and governments are on the cusp of the epiphany needed: new regulations are being introduced, reduced packaging is becoming more common, and there is far greater consumer awareness than ever before. But it is not enough. We have to act fast – not for future generations, but for the present, as this is the time frame that we’re dealing with. On the one hand, there is the damage to the environment and subsequent marine fatalities, which should be enough to convince many of this issue’s pertinence. For those less concerned with such issues, there is the inarguable cost to numerous industries, thousands of businesses, national economies, as well as the global economy. Fortunately, the story is not all doom and gloom: awareness is the first step. Now onto the next.