Plastic In Our Oceans by Abbie Barnes

Dec 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Youth Blog

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Plastic is a cheap and incredibly useful material that has dominated the way in which we live, work, eat and drink for 70 years. In the present time, it seems impossible to imagine a world without it, and it is easy to take this handy invention for granted. However, due to our wasteful lifestyles it seems that plastic is now becoming one of the largest environmental issues caused by man.

Plastics Europe highlighted that in 1950 around 50 million tonnes of plastic was created, but this figure rose to around 245 million tonnes in 2008. Approximately 122.5 million tonnes was used only once, before being thrown away and forgotten about, as it is estimated that around 50% of the plastic we use is used just once and then thrown away.

As a worldwide total, plastics account for roughly 10% of the total waste we generate and annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used, which is around one million bags used for every minute. The production of all of this plastic requires huge quantities of dwindling fossil fuels. Most estimate that around 8% of the world’s oil production is used as plastics, 4% of which is used in energy consumption to actually make the plastic itself. This is a serious issue, as there is only a finite amount of oil and gas left.

The vast majority of the waste we throw away is destined for landfills, where ‘out of sight is out of mind’. However, this containment does not solve the problem. Large quantities of plastic and litter easily enter into the water course and end up in the oceans. From here, global currents can distribute the trash all over the world. Like many issues facing the environment caused by mankind, plastics pay little attention to international boundaries and since over 46% of plastics float (EPA 2006) it can drift and reach even the most remote areas.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a vast area within the Pacific Ocean where huge amounts of plastic and trash has accumulated, due to the ocean currents creating zones of convergence. Some of this plastic has been broken down into small circular pieces, similar to the glass fragments you may find on the coast, by wave, wind and UV action, which eventually enters the food chain as small particles and sits undigested within fish stomachs, slowly releasing chemicals into their body. Inevitably, as humans, we then consume these fish. Plastic in any form is a potential threat to many species that live in or around the oceans, including humans.

Sea birds, such as gannets and gulls commonly ingest plastics and are choked as it sits within their stomachs; it has been said that around 95% of fulmars have some form of plastic within them and that over 100 sea bird species and 31 marine mammals have been known to ingest plastics (Laist, 1997, Allsopp et al).

Newer, non-biodegradable materials are being used as fishing nets, and when they become entangled on rocks they are simply cut free. Clumps of this netting then float aimlessly within the water and provide habitats for numerous species. However, it has been said that this has resulted in a corresponding rise in species invasion, and an increase in the opportunities for the transportation of alien species. This can have a catastrophic effect to native, indigenous and endemic species that live within fragile communities.

It is not uncommon for marine mammals such as turtles and seals, fish or sea birds to become entangled within plastics, including netting and packaging. A 1992 UNEP report estimates that around 130,000 cetaceans are caught in nets each year, and that entanglement rates of seals and sea lions has risen by 7.9% (Allsopp et al).

As a result of such high quantities of plastic causing damage within the seas, approximately 60% of humans that receive their source of protein from the ocean, may find that many species are being fewer in numbers and that they contain chemicals that may be harmful if ingested. This has recently been the case with whale meat. Plastic threatens fishing, shipping and tourism and species struggle to survive, costing developing and industrialized nations up to $1.27 billion, annually.

The question is, what can we do to stop this pandemic of destructive material? Recycle – as household owners and buyers of plastics, we need to recycle all the plastic we can. This ensures the material is reused and doesn’t enter into the oceans. Education is needed to teach people about the problems plastics are causing and help develop an understanding and awareness of the fragility of the oceans and their wildlife. Litter picking whenever you visit a coastal area will ensure that every piece of litter you pick up will not be returned to the sea, and possibly reusing these materials to create artwork or engaging activities with young people, will encourage a brighter and healthier future for our planets oceans and seas.

By Abbie Barnes

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