The Dark Future of the Ocean
Guest auteur – Dr. Gail Barnes
It was the morning after the storm the night before. As I stood on what the evening before had been a pristine picture-perfect beach, I could hardly believe my eyes. The beach was covered in debris – as if someone had emptied a garbage can and scattered the contents over the sand. There was plastic wherever I looked. Plastic cups, plastic toys, sections of plastic rope and tangled up in the seaweed which had also come ashore, more plastic bags than I could count. Slabs of polystyrene, plastic bottles and even a container large enough to be the proverbial kitchen sink. I was reminded of the quote by Sir Richard Attenborough, “There is no away – because plastic is so permanent and so indestructible. When you cast it into the ocean, there is no away.”
A Plastic Tide
Sky News in the United Kingdom has launched an Ocean Rescue campaign with a 45-minute film released on 25 January called “A Plastic Tide” that puts the ocean plastic problem into perspective.
“The ocean where life on Earth began is being turned into a synthetic soup,” the narration begins by Sky News science correspondent Thomas Moore, as he embarks on a journey to explore the immense problem of plastic pollution. He begins in Mumbai, India, where a city beach once used for swimming and playing is now completely covered in plastic garbage. Surprisingly, it’s not from direct littering, but from the ocean tide; every day brings a fresh layer of garbage, which could come from anywhere on the planet. No beach or shoreline is unaffected by this pollution. Due to the ocean currents and waterways that flow into those oceans, plastic waste that’s tossed in Australia or Japan could just as easily end up in Scotland or Nova Scotia.
Approximately 320 million tons of plastic are manufactured annually, but 40 percent of this is single-use items. Only 5 percent of plastics are effectively recycled, which means that the remaining 95 percent – almost all the plastic ever made – remains on the planet. This poses a problem because of its physical presence when it comes ashore, as well as a possibly bigger problem if it breaks down into microplastics as a result of decades of exposure to sunlight and the pounding of the waves. Microplastics are plastic particles that measure 5 millimeters or less and that are ingested by shrimp, plankton, fish, birds, turtles, and other sea animals, creating a cycle of contamination and entry into the human diet.
Where do all the microparticles go?
Profession Colin Janssen from the University of Ghent in Belgium estimates that the average Belgian, who enjoys mussels and other seafood, eats up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year. It is estimated that children could eat even more, with estimates as high as 750,000 microparticles per year by the end of this century.
Janssen’s studies of mussels have found that microplastics do not always stay in the stomach. They can be absorbed into the bloodstream, which could have repercussions for human health. “Where do [microplastics] go? Are they encapsulated by tissue and forgotten about by the body, or are they causing inflammation or doing other things? Are chemicals leaching out of these plastics and then causing toxicity? We don’t know and actually we do need to know,” Janssen told The Telegraph in the United Kingdom.
More plastic in the ocean than fish
The Ocean Conservancy which collects millions of pounds of trash during their annual International Coastal Cleanup, estimates that 28-billion pounds of plastic ends up in our ocean every year. This presents a human as well as an environmental problem – because most plastic is not recycled, $120 billion annually is lost to the economy. The United Nations Environment Program has calculated that externality costs, including damaged natural systems and clogged urban infrastructure, add up to $40 billion.
“Globally, despite 40 years of effort to focus on recycling, we currently collect 14 percent of plastics for recycling,” said Andrew Morlet, CEO of the circular economy think tank the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, at a World Economic Forum (WEF) panel during Davos 2017. “And we lose a lot of that during the recycling process, so we retain only 2 percent of that value for reuse. At the same time, one third [32 percent] of all plastics leak into the environment.” Our use of one-way containers, he warned, means that by 2050 there will be more plastic material in the ocean, by weight, than fish.
Collecting ocean plastic for reuse
Some major multinationals are stepping up to the plate to address the issue of ocean plastic. During the WEF, Procter & Gamble announced that it will sell shampoos in a recyclable bottle made of 25 percent beach plastic, and committed to creating half a billion hair-product bottles made with recycled plastic every year by 2018, representing more than 90 percent of such bottles sold in Europe across the company’s portfolio. To do so, it worked with New Jersey based TerraCycle, which connected the manufacturer with hundreds of volunteers and NGOs collecting 2,600 tons of plastic waste found on beaches.
“The bottles will be made of HDPE, a traditional No. 2 plastic that is municipally recyclable,” Brett Stevens, TerraCycle’s vice president of material sales and procurement, told an industry publication. But there are barriers to using 100 percent pre-used plastic, he said, which would cause the bottle to crack when squeezed: “A blend helps stabilize the plastic so it will perform well.”
To incentivize more companies to do address the issue of ocean plastic, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the WEF have committed to creating contests and awarding prizes to innovators in 2017.
There is hope
The film “A Plastic Tide” ends on a hopeful note, depicting beach cleanup activist Afroz Shah hard at work in Mumbai. After 62 weeks of cleaning with a team of volunteers, the beach that Moore initially visited has reappeared from beneath its layer of trash. “Cleaning up rubbish is addictive,” Shah says with a grin, and his volunteers nod enthusiastically. The group insists that the mindset is gradually changing as they educate people and set an example. “It may take a generation before we’re used to not throwing plastic away,” but Shah is certain that day will come.
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it,” said Robert Swan OBE, an environmentalist and one of the world’s greatest explorers. That someone else needs to become each of us. We all can and need to play a part of keeping plastics out of the ocean, whether by helping in cleanups or by donating to clean-up organizations or for the development of clean-up technology innovation. Most powerfully we can vote with our wallets for products and packaging designed with an end-of-life in mind that does not include landfill. We can preferentially purchase products made from rigid plastics that contain recycled content, particularly ocean plastic, and that are themselves able to be recycled, and flexible packaging that is compostable.
Finally, social media has given each of us a voice. We should use it. The future of the ocean looks dark now. It need not remain so.