You’ve probably already heard about the plastic crisis our seas are currently facing – the ‘save a turtle, refuse a straw’ campaign was very effective after all – but how bad is it really?
Well, to be honest, pretty bad.
We are plummeting towards a scenario where there might be more plastic in our ocean than fish in the next few decades.
To put it into context, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a pile of debris floating in the ocean that mostly contains plastic waste, and it’s three times the size of France.
Yepp, that’s right… and the worst part is that it isn’t the only patch out there.
But why is there so much plastic in our oceans? Does it even matter? And is there anything we can do to help?
Let’s take a closer look.
Why is there so Much Plastic in the First Place?
Well, it turns out that almost half of the marine waste floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of old fishing nets that have been lost or discarded into the sea. You can learn more about that in our post about commercial fishing threats.
But what about the other half?
Well, it’s a mixture, and it mainly comes down to littering, a lack of recycling, and our waterworks.
Have you ever gone for a swim at the beach and come back to find you can’t find your flip-flops (I know I have)?
Well, it happens a lot – beach cleans around the world are finding that washed away flip-flops are a key contributor to plastic pollution.
But it’s not just flip-flops that get swept away. Picnickers often leave behind traces of plastic that gets washed into the sea by the wind or as the tide rises.
And littering isn’t only a problem at the seaside. Many people living in landlocked cities think that their trash will never reach the ocean, but, sadly, it does.
Litter dropped in city centers often winds up in our river because, guess what, all rivers lead to the sea.
A similar problem occurs due to a lack of recycling. Instead of reusing our waste materials, we send them to landfills, and during the transportation process, lots of trash is lost, winds up in our streams and rivers – and eventually in the sea.
Another problem that people might not be so aware of relates to microplastics (tiny plastic particles) that are found within everyday household objects.
Clothes are certainly the worst culprit – many fabrics shed thousands of microparticles each time they’re spun in the wash, and these head straight to the sea via our water networks. Even most teabags contain plastic, and small particles can easily end up down the drain (and even in our tea…).
You might have heard of the microbead saga that happened a few years ago. Conservationists raised the alarm about facial scrubs containing ‘exfoliating’ beads that were, in fact, tiny bits of plastic that were heading straight into the sea and were even shown to have been ingested by serval fish.
Although this led to the banning of microbeads in many counties, it shows just how easily these sneak bits of plastic can leave our homes and make their way to the ocean.
Why Does it Matter?
But what’s all the fuss about? Does it even matter if plastic ends up in the sea?
In short, yes.
Although the full extent of the effects of this amount of plastic in our ocean is yet to be discovered, evidence already suggests a range of harmful effects on the environment, on marine life, and on humans.
The most obvious effect of plastic floating around our seas is marine life entanglements – you’ve probably seen horrific images somewhere before of poor turtles hooked in plastic bags or dolphins engulfed in fishing nets.
Floating plastic causes the deaths of thousands of marine species each year – either through direct suffocation, by hindering their movements so they can’t hunt or escape predators, or through injuries that later become fatal.
As overfishing continues to take place, many marine creatures are experiencing shortages in their usual food supply.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many of these hungry creatures turn to plastic as a possible food source. After all, they’re used to things floating in their ocean being edible.
By filling their stomachs with trash and not food, many animals are starving to death. This isn’t only a problem for sea-based creatures like dolphins, whales, and fish, but seabirds are suffering too, as they’re eating either plastic or fish-filled plastic and meeting the same sticky end.
Another side to the story is that large plastic structures, such as fishing nets, often wash up on fragile coral reefs. This can destroy the delicate coral structures that have taken years to form and, without them, entire ecosystems can collapse.
Sure, one piece of fishing gear isn’t likely to destroy an entire reef community, but combined with the other issues the ocean is facing, debris washing up repeatedly could just tip some reefs over the brink of no return.
Coral reefs support fish that are crucial food sources for coastal communities around the globe, and their destruction could leave many people hungry.
What’s more, plastics have been found in many of the fish we like to eat. Although the direct consequences of eating fish containing such particles remains to be investigated, it’s highly likely that it won’t be good news.
What Can We Do to Help?
So, plastic pollution is killing and harming marine life, destroying marine ecosystems, causing job losses, and potentially harming our health… so what should we do about it?
Fortunately, there are loads of things you can do to cut down on your plastic waste.
Cutting out on plastic in the first place is a great way to stop any more of it from reaching our ocean – refuse plastic straws, try a solid shampoo, use a refillable water bottle, etc. (for most tips on zero-plastic living, check out this article).
And, even if you can’t cut things out completely (like clothes), you can at least reduce the effect you’re having. Purchasing fewer, better-made clothes will release far fewer plastic particles than lots of cheap ones will.
And if you do find yourself purchasing plastic products, make sure you recycle them and don’t put them in the ordinary trash.
Or, if you want to be more proactive, why not organize a local beach or river clean-up? Or simply promise to pick up at least three pieces of trash every time you go to the beach?
Finally, bearing in mind that almost half of the plastic in the sea comes from commercial fishing, you can cut down on your fish intake or look into sustainable options.
They might not seem like significant actions but, if people start taking plastic pollution seriously collectively, even small changes can make big waves.