The Plastic Pollution Crisis: What You Need To Know

If you haven’t seen Seaspiracy on Netflix yet, make sure you take the time to watch it this week! It has gained global attention and a lot of people are debating the documentary’s claims, statistics and data. Like Cowspiracy, the programme takes you on a journey to uncover the environmental impacts and socio-economic reliance we place on our oceans. From exposing the impacts plastic is having on marine wildlife to the dark side of the fishing industry, we all know we are 'neck-deep' in an ocean governance dilemma on a global level. When we visit beaches around the world, you can 100% guarantee you’ll come across plastic waste. We need to find ways to reduce our plastic consumption – and fast! But first let’s go back to basics. How does plastic impact ocean life and human health and why does it matter? Here are three pathways you need to know.

1. Entanglement

Entanglement is the entrapping, encircling and constricting of marine animals by plastic debris. To date, at least 344 animal species have been reported to be entangled by plastic in our oceans, including all turtle species, two-thirds of seal species, a third of whale species and one-quarter of seabirds[1]. Entanglements most commonly involve fishing nets, plastic rope and abandoned fishing gear[2]. There are many reasons why fishing gear can be lost or abandoned. This can be through severe weather conditions, conflict with other gear, snags beneath the surface and intentionally discarding the stuff through sheer ignorance or because there are no other options available.

We’ve been following several IG accounts that focus on this devastating reality and we love the work that @healthyseas do! Their mission is to clean our seas from marine litter. Founded in 2013, they tackle the ghost fishing phenomenon that is responsible for the needless death of so many marine animals. Through cleanups, volunteer divers and working with local communities to build awareness, they collect and help prevent waste nets from entering our oceans, and ensure they become a valuable resource. Here’s a little viddy to explain the amazing work they do!

2. Ingestion

The ingestion of plastic can have multiple impacts on organism health. Large volumes of plastic have been found in many marine species, invertebrates and seabirds already. When photographer, Chris Jordan, captured the remains of an albatross with a stomach full of plastic pieces (linked), the images illustrated the severity of the situation. Many creatures mistake plastic pieces for a meal. At least 180 species of marine animals have been documented to consume plastic, from tiny plankton to gigantic whales. Plastic has been found inside the guts of a third of UK-caught fish, including species that we regularly consume as food. Animals of all shapes and sizes are eating plastic, and with 12.7 million tons of the stuff entering the oceans every year, it’s no surprise[3]. Humans are visual creatures but many marine animals, including albatrosses, rely primarily on their sense of smell. This suggests that some species of seabirds and fish are attracted to plastic by its odour. Algae attaches to tiny pieces of floating plastic, giving off a scent that its edible[4]According to Surfers Against Sewage, there is approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic in our oceans, amounting to 269 tons[5]. To demonstrate the sheer scale of this, that’s roughly the same as 1,345 adult size blue whales!  

Image by Vitamina Poleznova.

3. Interaction

The interaction of plastic includes collision, obstructions and abrasions in marine ecosystems. This means plastic is interfering with natural structures causing lasting damage to coral reefs and the sea floor. The use of fishing gear can cause abrasion when being swept across the sea bed, disrupting everything in its path. Not only is this devastating, but ecosystem structures take years and years to recover. There is increasing evidence that plastic contamination and interference in the marine environment will continue with rapid growth in plastic production. It has been forecast that plastic production will grow by 60% by 2030 and treble by 2050[6]. This gobsmacking prediction is damn right scary! Studies show that plastic interfering with ecosystems release hazardous chemicals to ocean life which has proven to induce hepatic stress, behavioural changes and fat metabolism in fish[7][8]. This is major cause for concern. If we keep producing and disposing of plastic at the same rate we are right now, we will experience more micro-plastics in our oceans than stars in the galaxy - not to mention the frightful health implications up the food chain!

Chances are, even after watching @Seaspiracy, people will continue to consume fish and purchase food from supermarkets wrapped in plastic due to convenience. But it’s not a convenience if we’re polluting our wildlife and food chains for many years to come. Next week we’ll be posting a blog post and IG reel on how YOU can become an eco warrior. We can all help combat the plastic pollution crisis through making small habitual changes to our everyday lifestyles. And guess what? It starts now!

Banner Image: Fer Nando.

References:

[1] Kühn, S., Rebolledo, E. L. B., & van Franeker, J. A. (2015). Deleterious effects of litter on marine life. In Marine Anthropogenic Litter (pp. 75-116). Springer, Cham.  

[2] Gall, S. C., & Thompson, R. C. (2015). The impact of debris on marine life. Marine pollution bulletin92(1-2), 170-179. 

[3] Our Blue Planet, https://ourblueplanet.bbcearth.com/blog/?article=why-do-marine-animals-eat-plastic [Online Resource].

[4] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) - "Plastic Pollution". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution' [Online Resource].

[5] Surfers Against Sewage, https://www.sas.org.uk/our-work/plastic-pollution/plastic-pollution-facts-figures/ [Online Resource].

[6] Center for International Environmental Law (2019), https://www.ciel.org/  [Online Resource].

[7] Rochman CM, Hoh E, Kurobe T, Teh SJ. 2013. Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. Scientific Reports 3:3263.

[8] Cedervall T, Hansson LA, Lard M, Frohm B, Linse S. 2012. Food chain transport of nanoparticles affects behaviour and fat metabolism in fish. PLOS ONE 7:e32254.