Plastic is absolutely everywhere. From bottle caps to computers, the plastics revolution changed the world and shaped life as we know it. But plastic has an incredible dark side as a rapidly emerging global environmental disaster. A dark side that is choking our planet, killing marine life and is destroying the ocean, where plastic concentrations are as high as 580,000 pieces per km2 being driven exponentially by the increasing global production.
In 1957 the very first plastic sandwich bags were introduced. Nine years later, the common plastic supermarket bag was rolled out and it took decades before recycling of these bags even began. Turn the corner and by 2008, more than 102 billion plastics bags were used in the United States alone. Over the last ten years, we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century and enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times.
But what happens to all of this plastic? Most people would believe it is recycled and reused but unfortunately, a lot of this plastic ends up in the ocean—around 80% of marine litter originates on land and most of that is plastic. We are treating the ocean like a trash bin with devastating consequences not only to marine life but the entire planetary ecosystem.
To understand how problematic and devastating plastic is to the marine ecosystems in the ocean, we must first understand something at the very small end of the spectrum: plankton.
Plankton consist of bacterioplankton (bacteria), virioplankton (viruses), phytoplankton (plants), and zooplankton (animals). Phytoplankton provide the primary food source for the zooplankton and together, they form the base of the oceanic food chain. Much larger zooplankton, fish and mammals all depend on these plankton for their survival. The bacterioplankton recycle and re-mineralise materials and energy within the marine food chain.
Phytoplankton also play a critical role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere and releasing oxygen into the water, which is part of the process photosynthesis. These one-celled plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and nutrients into complex organic compounds, which form new plant material. This process—photosynthesis—is how phytoplankton grow. Upwards of 70% of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis while the rest is produced by photosynthesis on land by trees and other plants.
Phytoplankton and the ocean are therefore considered one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet much in the same way that the Amazon rainforest is. In fact, 26% of all the carbon released as CO2 from fossil fuel burning was absorbed by the oceans. Ocean dead zones are a critical threat to the survival of phytoplankton.
At the large end of the spectrum, whales are just as critically important as phytoplankton. In fact, phytoplankton rely on whales to exist as they are fertilised by whale excrement, such as this impressive 30-metre wide “poonado”. Whale excrement is responsible for fertilising phytoplankton, so the fewer whales there are, the less phytoplankton there is. The less phytoplankton there is, the less zooplankton and fish there are and the less carbon dioxide sequestering that is able to occur—and the worse climate change will become.
A 30-metre wide “poonado”.
The tiny plankton and the large whale are as equally important within the entire marine ecosystem, and both play a critical role in the planetary ecosystem which supports all of our lives.
So, heading back to the original point—what role is plastic playing in all of this?
How Plastic is Impacting the Marine Ecosystems
A Pervasive Problem
Plastic debris is a pervasive problem throughout the world’s oceans and the blame sits squarely on our shoulders. The estimated 270,000 tons of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean is thought to be responsible for a whopping 700 different marine species who are threatened by its presence, as that plastic plays a role in rising rates of species extinction.
An Australian team of scientists who have studied birds and marine debris found that far more seabirds were affected by the ingestion of plastics than the previous estimate of 29%. They stated that the threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing and that as many as nine out of ten, or 90%, of the world’s seabirds are likely to have pieces of plastic in their guts today. Their 2015 study results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and even more alarmingly indicate that this plastics ingestion will reach 99% of all species by 2050.
The team’s work found the biggest problem was not where there was the most garbage, such as the infamous patch in the central north Pacific Ocean, but instead it was in areas with the greatest number of different species, especially in the southern hemisphere near Australia and New Zealand.
Photodegradation of Plastics
However, it isn’t only the larger pieces and collections of plastics that painfully kill whales and fish and cause seabirds like the albatross to starve to death that are the problem; plastic never fully biodegrades. Instead, plastics photodegrade—that is, they break down under UV light into smaller and smaller pieces to the microscopic level. As they do, any toxic additives they contain, including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticisers, will be released into the marine environment. These tiny pieces break down no further and persist unseen in the deeper layers of the marine environment indefinitely.
Studies confirm that like the whales and fish who mistake macroplastics for food, zooplankton mistake microplastics for food—and the results are usually fatal. Marina Garland from the College of the Atlantic has been researching the persistent pollution problem that is choking the ocean. Her research finds that “aquatic microorganisms, such as plankton, can also mistake microplastic particles for food and subsequently be killed by the adverse effects of the particle on the organism’s digestive tract.”
Additionally, said Garland, “various toxins are known to cling to plastic particles through a process known as adsorption. As a result, plastic flotsam collected from oceans is often a concentrated source for such toxic chemicals as the pesticide DDT. Microorganisms that ingest the toxic plastic particles are often consumed by larger organisms, which then become toxic themselves. The concentration of toxicity in marine organisms continues to increase at the higher levels of the food chain through a process known as biomagnification.”
On top of the visible problem of macroplastics, we have further reason to be critically concerned about the state of the marine ecosystem and consequently, our future on this planet. Macroplastics kill larger marine life like whales and fish, and the photodegradation of macroplastics into microplastics are killing zooplankton. Without these animals alive and well in the marine environment, the oceans will die—and when the oceans die, we die, because one of the biggest carbon sinks will no longer function, nor will the production of most of the world’s oxygen.
What Can We Do?
The Ocean Cleanup
Thankfully, some big projects are in the works. The world’s first system designed to rid the oceans of plastic pollution will be deployed near Japan in Q2 2016, with the aim of eventually capturing half of the plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a large concentration of marine debris located between Hawaii and California. The system will span 2000 meters, thereby becoming the longest floating structure ever deployed in the ocean. It will be operational for at least two years, catching plastic pollution before it reaches the shores of the proposed deployment location of Tsushima island.
- Your food consumption: Marine life is plummeting because of commercial fishing. Help the marine ecosystem out by not eating animals and consume a healthy plant-based diet instead, which is better for the environment both on and off-land.
- Ocean dead zones: Nitrogen and phosphorous from animal agriculture run-off causes an increase in chemical nutrients in the water, which leads to excessive blooms of algae that deplete underwater oxygen levels. Marine life is not able to survive. Agricultural runoff is the primary culprit is responsible for over 500 nitrogen flooded ocean dead zones around the globe. Eating animal meat and dairy directly supports the on-going creation of ocean dead zones. Consuming a healthy plant-based diet is again, better for the environment both on and off-land.
- Poison: As zooplankton mistakenly eat microplastics, the toxin-containing plastics are also eaten by jellyfish and small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish. Many of the same fish are dragged out of the ocean, killed and eaten by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals. Fish are only rich in omega 3 because they eat algae—a plant—and humans are able to obtain adequate amounts of omega 3 from flaxseeds, walnuts, chia and hemp seeds, and nori. Alternatively, you can always take a “Ovega-3″ supplement.
- Clean up your beach: Many organisations host clean-up days where you can volunteer to pick up trash at your local beach. Alternatively, you can just do it on your own accord with some friends. A few hours of your time can make a big difference.
- Mass Coastal Cleanups: Each year join the International Coastal Cleanup day on September 19th. The 2014 event involved more than 560,000 volunteers in 91 countries who managed to picked up more than 16 million pounds of trash. Check out these other coastal cleanup options by the United Nations Environment Programme.
- Reduction: OneGreenPlant says there’s five ways you can help reduce your plastic use each day and even 10 ways to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle. If enough people did these things, the amount of plastic being purchased and thrown away would reduce.
- The Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter was established in 2011. The program has been adopted by 54 plastics industry organisations so far, outlines a six-point strategy for industry action, and advocates close cooperation with a broad range of stakeholders to shape solutions for the marine environment. Approximately 100 projects have been identified at present, which will be carried out in 32 countries, and the implementation of solutions to keep more valuable plastics in productive use while growing recycling and energy recovery.
- Certain countries are moving to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags. In 2011, Italy was the first European country to ban them, while China, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Bangladesh have banned very thin plastic bags, and the United Arab Emirates has banned all plastic bags except oxo-biodegradables. At the top, Rwanda and Somalia have banned plastic bags entirely.