“Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.” – R. Buckminster Fuller (Inventor and Poet)

Plastic pollution is choking us and the ocean. Via rivers, rain and wind, this never-disappearing material ends up in the sea. It is estimated that 10–20 million extra tons of plastic join the plastic soup each year (1). That is one garbage truck every minute! At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050 (2). Why is plastic such a problem? Do you know the full scale of the issue? What is plastic in the first place?

 

I hear Valére in the cockpit. “Bart, wake up wake up! I need your help to get the fish in.” I’m down in the galley attempting to work on my book. I think: Oh boy, not again.” Line fishing is one of the least harmful fishing methods. It’s a much better choice than opening a can of tuna. But we have lost four fishing lines by now, which will just end up floating around until a fish or turtle somewhere gets caught. Bart: “It’s white. What kind of fish would this be?” Valére: “I don’t know. Let’s get it in.” I try not to listen. The boys have been trying to fish for days. Bart enthusiastically announces “Suz, we caught the biggest thing ever.” But it was not a fish. It’s a plastic bag! They caught a plastic bag in the middle of the Atlantic. “There are some dolphins on the bow if you want to see them” – Valére says. Kerstin: “You know why there are coming? To thank us for fishing out the plastic.”

I’ve seen bottles, bags, pieces of this, pieces of that, floating by in the middle of the ocean. Thousands of kilometres from civilisation. Most likely you already know plastic is an issue. Shops have started charging for plastic bags now, or even banning them altogether (hoorah Hawaii and Delhi!) so you might already be bringing your own. Your municipality might ask you to separate your plastic waste. Perhaps you’ve seen a picture of a sea creature tangled in plastic. And realise that in the western world we’re way ahead of it. In the Caribbean, they raise an eyebrow if you say no to the convenience of a plastic bag.

A few plastic facts

  • 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world’s oceans. (3) That is almost the equivalent of the European population in weight! Look up ‘Sailing seas of plastic’ to zoom in and out on the ocean and see the data of this global plastic study swimming in the ocean. If current trends continue, this will be two trucks per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050 (1)!
  • An estimated 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from land, the other 20 percent from practices at sea (4) (remember those fishing lines we lost)!
  •   94% of plastic ends up at the bottom of the sea (4). 

What is plastic?

The word “plastic” comes from the word plastikos. This means to mould or form. It is made from processed oil and exists as a chain of molecules called polymers. The special property of the polymers is the large size of their molecules. These “super molecules” allow for bending, and for adding different types of chemicals to produce plastic in any shape or colour. And indeed, we can make any shape, colour or substance from plastic.

 

Try going for just ten minutes without touching plastic… I’ve already failed! The buttons of my computer are made from plastic. It’s everywhere – shoes, plates, forks, spoons, toothbrushes, toys, straws, cups, shavers, chairs, bottles, bags, shampoo wrappers, pens, diapers, cookie-wrappers, even the ink on your grocery receipt is plastic. There’s even plastic in our shampoo, toothpaste and scrub. Our clothes are plastic: acrylic, nylon and polyester are all types of plastic. Go beyond the veggie department in the supermarket, and almost everything has plastic. Even the veggie departments are great at wrapping things in plastic these days. Regulations. My freedive mask and fins are made from plastic, my backpack is plastic, my nylon sweater is plastic. Most boats are made of plastic these days. Sails are plastic. The boat toys are plastic. 

It’s great, right? We can make everything from plastic! It doesn’t corrode. It’s cheap, lightweight, help us to store food, drinks and other stuff. It’s convenient. Plastic makes our food last. We don’t have to do the dishes at the BBQ party. We can take away our food. We sip cocktails and coconuts through plastic. We have made ourselves very dependent on it. We are living in a plastic age.

Fish eating a bag

Why is plastic a problem?

Plastic is designed to last forever. Plastic may be derived from natural materials, but in the process, molecular structures are changed, chemicals are added, and become too strong and durable for the planet to digest. There is no bacteria or enzyme that effectively eats plastic and closes the natural cycle, which means it just keeps piling up. Every piece of plastic ever manufactured is still on this planet. We may throw it ‘away.’ Only there is no such thing as ‘away.’ Where’s away? Plastics accumulate in garbage dumps, landfills, and eventually the ocean. Our creation has become our enemy.

You may have heard that there are islands of plastic floating in the ocean. While it’s not really an island, it’s almost like one. These ‘islands’ are gyres. A gyre is where ocean currents come together in a circular pattern and where plastic accumulates. Five main ocean gyres exist. Here the plastic soup is densest. Where outside the gyres plastic density has been estimated 1000–100,000 pieces km2 and even up to 890,000 pieces km2 in the Mediterranean (3), the density in the gyres are multifold. Here marine life rampantly ingests plastic and gets entangled.

Scientists have also found that plastics carried in the current are contributing to the spread of invasive species. Plastic functions like a transport mechanism. For example, algae and crabs hitch a ride on the plastics as it acts as a transport mechanism (5). As foreign species in a new environment can be invasive and destructive by altering the balance of an ecosystem. 

The most worrisome types of plastic are the ‘disposables’ that we only use for ten seconds, ten minutes or maybe an hour and then throw ‘away.’ Packaging, bottles, bags, straws, take away boxes. Take a water bottle: It’s manufactured using energy and petrochemicals, packed, shipped, flown, trucked, driven, cooled, drank and then tossed away. So much energy for such short use, and an endless lifespan in nature. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Tossed ‘away’ means it either ends up in landfill for hundreds of years, is burned releasing toxins into the atmosphere, ends up in nature, or is recycled.

Only a tiny fraction (Scientific data ranges from two -15%) of the plastic produced is recycled, which again takes oil and energy to turn used bottles into other plastic items. Plastic comes in many forms, and each type has to be recycled through a different process. This takes a lot of resources. Only certain plastics can be recycled, and only into a different type of plastic. A bottle can never be a bottle again, only a bench or a car. It’s called ‘down-cycling.’

A lot of plastic is seen. Even more of it is unseen. Through exposure to the sun, salt, wind and waves, plastic break down into microplastics. It does not biodegrade, but fragmentizes. 3.2 million tons out of 9.5 million tons of plastic that enters the ocean yearly is in the form of microplastics (small particles of plastic, less than 1mm in size). These are a big threat to marine life. The latest research says that most of it comes from clothing fibres or tires (6). Every time we do the laundry more than 20 million microfibers are released into the wastewater (7). These fibres eventually find their way into the stomach of a fish. Into your stomach?

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A piece of plastic in the ocean is a million times more polluted than the water around it (8). Water repels chemicals and metals like mercury, arsenic. Plastic, on the other hand, attracts these toxins like a sponge. Led, chromium, and tin are found in plastic litter (9). Fish and sea mammals mistake microplastic particles for food and ingest them, making them sick. The higher the plastic moves up in the food chain, the more toxins accumulate.

Besides impact plastic has on our ocean, wildlife and environment, plastic is a concern to human health. Plastic isn’t just around us, it’s in us! Through food we eat, water we drink, products we use, things we touch, and the air we breathe. Plastic is found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish (10). Shellfish lovers could be eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year (11).

It’s not a question anymore if we are eating plastic from seafood, the question is what is does to the health of animals, the ocean, and us. Plastic in the ocean contains high levels of pollutants such as PCB, Phthalates, organic pesticides like BPA, and heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead. These are proven poisons linked to all sorts of diseases, including cancer, hormone disruption, and infertility issues (12).

Caption: Ghost fishing in the afternoon office… Picked up this line from the shore. It’s dozens of metres long. That’s a few metres less of ghost line in the sea, along with a few items of plastic caught up in it. The positive side of a ghost line: it can clean up too.

Another plastic problem is known as ghost fishing. Hundreds of kilometres of fish lines and nets, made from plastic, get lost every year at sea. This kind of trash doesn’t only pollute; it is one of the biggest killers of wildlife living in or near the ocean. Fish get tangled or trapped. These lines, an estimated 10% of all marine debris, will never ever disappear unless we take them out. An estimated 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost or abandoned in the ocean each year, killing more than 100,000 seals, sea lions, and whales (13). These ghosts continue to accumulate in the ocean, catching and killing birds and marine life. Whales wash up ashore with not just one or two, but dozens of plastic items in their stomachs.

sustainable sailing

Bioplastic

What about bioplastics like biodegradable plastic and bio-based plastic? The names sound great and natural, but these types of ‘plastic’ come with other problems. They can do more harm than good. 

Biodegradable ‘plastic’, which breaks down completely in nature with the help of bacteria, fungi or algae, comes with other problems. In landfill, there often is no sun or oxygen which the ‘plastic’ needs to biodegrade. Producing biodegradable plastic still takes a huge amount of resources. They’re often still made from similar petroleum based materials to plastic, only with some ingredients added that make it decompose, still leaving toxic leftovers. Also, when a product is ‘biodegradable,’ one may be less likely to reuse it.

Bio-based plastic, which is ‘plastics’ based on natural material (for example made from corn, potatoes, soy, wheat, seaweed, coconut, sugar cane), can result in problems with food security. We need our land more for food production than ‘plastic.’ The breakdown of these products results in co2 and methane release which contributes to global warming. Bio-based plastics are also hard to recycle since they need to be separated from other plastic to be able to be recycled.

One day, we may find a way to make the perfect material which is available in abundance and can be completely eaten by nature. But until then, we need to produce, re-use and refuse more smartly. We must stop the creation at the source. Cleaning up is great, but it’s like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. We must reduce, redesign and push out plastic packaging in favour of more environmentally-friendly alternatives, and altogether just simplify our lives in general.  

References

  1. Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. [Online] World Economic Forum, 2016.
  2. World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. , The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics. [Online] 2016. http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications.
  3. Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, et al. Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. [Online] 2014.
  4. Sherrington, C. Plastics in the marine environment. Eunomia. [Online] 2016. http://www.eunomia.co.uk/reports-tools/plastics-in-the-marine-environment/.
  5. Eriksen, M., Thiel, M., & Lebreton, L. Nature of Plastic Marine Pollution in the Subtropical Gyres. 2017.
  6. IUCN. Primary Microplastics in the Oceans:. [Online] 2017. https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2017-002.pdf.
  7. Oceancleanwash. [Online] http://oceancleanwash.org/.
  8. Chelsea M. Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Kurobe & Swee J. Teh. Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 3263.
  9. Toxic Metals in Polyethylene Plastic Litter. Nakashima, E., Isobe, A., Kako, S., Magome, S., Deki, N., Itai, T., & Takahashi, S. [ed.] X. Guo, N. Yoshie, N. Fujii, I I. C. Handoh, A. Isobe, & S. Tanabe (Eds.) In K. Omori. Tokyo : TERRAPUB, 2011, Interdisciplinary studies on environmental chemistry: Modeling and analysis of marine environmental problems. , Vol. 5.
  10. Plymouth University. Plastics in the marine environment. [Online] https://www1.plymouth.ac.uk/research/mberc/Research/Marine%20pollution/Pages/Plastics.aspx.
  11. Microplastics in bivalves cultured for human consumption. Cauwenberghe (van), L., Janssen, C. 2014, Environmental Pollution, Vol. 193, pp. 65-70. DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2014.06.010.
  12. Plastic Degradation and Its Environmental Implications with Special Reference to Poly(ethylene terephthalate) . Hayden K. Webb, Jaimys Arnott, Russell J. Crawford and Elena P. Ivanova *. 1, 2013, Polymers, Vol. 5. http://www.mdpi.com/2073-4360/5/1/1/htm.
  13. Macfadyen, G., Huntington, T., & Cappell, R. Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear. Regional Seas Reports and Studies 185, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, UNEP. 2009. United Nations Environment Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear”, UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies, No. 185; FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, No. 523 (Rome, 2009). Available from www.unep.org/regionalseas/ marinelitter/publications/docs/Marine_Litter_Abandoned_Lost_Fishing_Gear.pdf

What can you do?