Plastic has become the “ubiquitous workhorse material” of the modern economy, combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost, and its use has increased twentyfold in the past half-century, according to circular economy advocacy charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
However, the rapid rise in demand for plastic, owing to its low-cost appeal, has also developed into its biggest drawback – easy disposability and single use. Vast volumes of single-use plastic serve a brief purpose before being disposed of, after which the plastic either ends up at landfill sites or, eventually, in the world’s oceans.
More recently, large masses of ocean plastic have begun to either wash up on beaches or become increasingly visible in the five ocean gyres – areas in the middle of oceans where currents sweep and gather debris.
Currently, there are about 700-million tons of plastic in the world’s oceans, and this volume is being added to daily, says nonprofit marine wildlife conservation organisation Sea Shepherd Conservation Society CEO and founder Captain Paul Watson.
According to global trash removal and marine environmental advocacy initiative 4ocean, a garbage truck filled with plastic waste is being dumped into the ocean every minute. Yearly, 630 000 t of trash ends up in oceans, much of it comprising plastic, the organisation adds.
The situation is so dire that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation claims that, at the current rate of plastic accumulation in the oceans, by 2050, the plastic in the world’s oceans will weigh more than all the fish.
“Plastic is a greater threat to sea life than oil spills,” says Watson, explaining that oil degrades in sunlight and in environments where there are bacteria, but plastic does not degrade.
Describing his early attempts to bring attention to the plastics dilemma, Watson says that people thought he was being ridiculous when he wrote about the pollution caused by plastic in the 1980s. “Now, at last, these concerns are being taken seriously.”
Sea Shepherd crews sail across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans every year, during which plastic spotting has become a daily and regular occurrence. Plastic is a major threat to life in the ocean, says Watson. “That is why Sea Shepherd is working to recycle the fishing gear that we retrieve during our antipoaching campaigns and why our volunteers worldwide are cleaning beaches and retrieving plastic nets and garbage from the bottom of the sea.”
Marine life often dies as a direct result of plastic waste, states Watson. “From getting strangled by six-pack plastic holders to starving to death with a stomach full of plastic – whales, turtles, birds and many other marine species have been documented to have died as a direct result of plastics pollution.”
Sources and Solutions
Watson says the dilemma of such large volumes of plastic in the ocean is exacerbated by the global population increasing and more people adopting the “plastic convenience culture”, in which virtually every human being uses plastic materials daily, directly and indirectly.
However, 4ocean cites poor trash management by the waste management departments of many countries worldwide. The initiative says that, in Ghana, for instance, the waste management department is capable of collecting only 60% of the waste generated daily for disposal to landfills. “The rest is dumped in open spaces, in surface drains and into bodies of water. This is a prime example of how, even when we properly dispose of trash, inappropriate containers . . . can still find [their] way, whether directly or indirectly, into our oceans.”
International multimedia news agency Sky News has also thrown its hat into the awareness campaign with its Sky Ocean Rescue initiative. According to this initiative, everyone is responsible for plastic in the ocean. “From 2014 to 2015, there was a 43% increase in the number of plastic bottles washing up on UK beaches.”
Floating plastic acts as a magnet for pesticides, flame retardants and other chemicals found in the ocean. These chemicals are known to disrupt human hormones and cause cancer. Plastic also contains phthalates, often found in glue, and bisphenol-A, which is also used to make DVDs.
This is where a key health risk comes into play. Plastic breaks into smaller pieces as waves and the sun make it brittle. Once it turns into small chunks, it is mistaken for food by fish. Subsequently, microplastics become lodged in the fish, working their way into the animals’ chemical composition and affecting their hormones. This has a knock-on effect for humans, who consume seafood and, thus, ultimately, microplastics-laden fish.
To mitigate the situation, Sea Shepherd is engaged in microplastics research. Scientists on board Sea Shepherd vessels have found links between the disruption of the reproductive system of fin whales in the Sea of Cortez, off the coast of Mexico, and the plastic chemical accumulation in the endocrine system of these whales, owing to the ingestion of microplastics. “Like heavy metals, these chemicals accumulate in the body,” says Watson, adding that the long-term effects are not fully known and humans are being affected in ways not yet imaginable. “All marine life is ingesting high levels of microplastics; therefore, so are humans consuming seafood.”
Sea Shepherd also has its Clean Waves campaign, through which the organisation is establishing plastics management solutions in remote atolls in the Pacific Ocean, starting with Fanning Island, in Kiribati.
Reducing the volumes of plastic ending up in the oceans will primarily require not using single-use plastics. Single-use plastic items range from thin grocery packets, disposable plastic cups and food and beverage containers to cotton earbuds and straws, besides other items.
Watson says there is no easy way through which humanity can shift towards a more environment-friendly coexistence with nature, but points out that it is not impossible. “People used to buy groceries in the 1940s (with carriers other than single-use plastic bags) and managed. Food should be sold in glass containers and recycled paper.”
Watson explains that moving away from single-use plastic is a matter of will. “Take your own bags and containers to the store – do not use single-use plastics.” He also advises that something as simple as carrying a personal water bottle and a coffee cup could go a long way towards reducing single-use plastic products.
Further, he enthuses that society should increasingly support companies that are moving away from plastics and spread the word to others who might still be uncommitted. “With demand, the market will adapt and more plastic-free products will become available.”
In line with a reduction in the demand for single-use plastic products, many also point to the need for a much more intensive programme of recycling of plastic.
Sky Ocean Rescue states that, in the UK, about 36-million plastic bottles are bought every day, but fewer than 50% end up being recycled.
A key prospect of the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign is lobbying for the introduction of a deposit return scheme. “There are already 35 schemes in place worldwide. One in Norway raised recycling rates to 96%,” according to the campaign.
Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) urges consumers to adopt a few simple and basic philosophies to “turn the tide on plastic”. Its first is to adopt the increased use of durable shopping bags to replace single-use plastic bags.
The second is to reduce the use and demand for single-use disposable coffee cups. The WWF cites the South African Coffee Club’s statistics, which indicate that coffee consumption and the coffee business in general have grown dramatically in South Africa. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 20 roasteries compared with more than 100 currently. In this regard, the WWF advises consumers to carry a personal reusable coffee cup with them instead.
Single-use plastic straws are also a major issue, as are plastic water bottles. But the WWF says many retailers are switching to more ecofriendly options, such as reusable straws made from glass, steel, and even bamboo. In terms of water containers, the WWF also urges people to switch to a reusable glass water bottle.
Another major bugbear for the WWF is the use of earbuds with plastic sticks, but the organisation says these can be substituted with paper-based buds, which are available on the market and simply require consumers to encourage retailers to stock them. The plastic sticks used in lollipops pose a similar problem, and can be replaced with paper sticks.
Therefore, to move successfully away from the various forms of single-use plastic items requires buy-in throughout the supply and consumption chain, from the design of products to the manufacturing, distribution and transport of goods to retailers and to the end consumer.
A greater volume of alternative, easier-to-recycle or biodegradable products will go a long way towards making it easier for consumers to choose more environment-friendly products, as well as making it easier to either reuse such items or to dispose of them.