Lost at sea: Our ocean’s plastics pollution problem

Lost at sea: Our ocean’s plastics pollution problem

Before today, if you’d have told me that humankind was capable of constructing an entirely new island, double the size of Texas, in the middle of the Pacific, completely out of plastic [1], I would’ve said you were crazy. But we’ve managed it, completely unintentionally.

However, this is just the tip of the plastic burg. Our oceans are being treated like one giant communal rubbish bin and it appears our planet is unable to take it out for collection.

We have entered the age of plastics [2], now the most popular man-made material, our everyday lives are reliant upon it, from our cars to our coffee cups. It’s engrained within society. But why?

Plastics are a versatile material [3]. They’re strong, long-lasting, inexpensive, and perfect for an expansive range of manufactured goods. It’s these properties that make the material so popular and so key in today’s economy. But it’s these same properties that make plastics such a threat to our oceans [3]. Wherever plastic waste situates it persists, and this is at a major cost to our marine wildlife [4].

Every minute, the equivalent of one dustbin lorry’s worth of plastics is dumped into the ocean. This is set to double by 2030 and double again by 2050 if no action is taken [5,4]. By 2025 there will be an estimated 1 tonne of plastics for every 3 tonnes of fish, and by 2050 plastics will outweigh fish entirely [5].

Fish and seabirds mistake certain microplastics (fragments of larger plastics) for food, ingesting them, causing internal and toxic issues [3,6,7]. These microplastic have subsequently found their way into our diets, the long-term effects of which are unknown [8]. Creatures can often get entangled in larger discarded plastic debris too, becoming trapped and starving [7]. The planets marine ecosystem simply cannot cope with the extent of plastic waste we subject it to. So how has it managed to get to this level?

In today’s society, plasticss production plays an integral part in driving the economic growth our world’s capitalist culture is centred around. This economic growth is sustained via the throughput of raw material inputs and waste outputs within our global ecosystem [9]. We take what we need, use what we want, and dump what remains. But on the scale that plastics are produced, this is beyond unsustainable.

This issue of scale is the core cause of the ocean’s plastics pollution problem. Our society simply does not consider the sheer magnitude of plastics production in relation to the limits of our planet [10]. The growth of the economy is encroaching on the physical extremities our world outlines and we’re ignorant of the detriment we’re imposing on its valuable services and resources [11]. Over the past 50 years plastics production has increased 20-fold to ~311 million tonnes per year and by 2030 this is predicted to double [5]. How can this seemingly infinite production persist in an undeniably resource finite world?

Sustainability is the answer. If we keep the throughput of plastics production within the natural capacity of the ecosystem the issue of its pollution will decline. Reaching this ‘optimal scale’ lowers production to a level that matches the planets ability to recover [9]. This may seem an obvious solution but it’s proving trickier in practise.

Bioplastics offer a direct solution to traditional plastics persistent nature. These plastics are designed to biodegrade drastically faster, feeding the waste back into the ecosystem quicker. However, the environmental effects of this alternative are unknown. Additionally, the performance of these bioplastics is considered weaker and their use doesn’t promote healthy ways of sustainable consumption [7].

Alternatively, a cost-effective way to improve this lack of sustainable thinking is through education. It’s not good enough that only 14% of annual plastics waste is recycled and 32% is polluted [5]. Promoting the 3-Rs of ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ can have a large-scale impact from the bottom-up as it promotes a circular economy [12,6]. By reducing plastics input and reusing and recycling what we can to reduce outputs, we will lessen the scale of throughput our planet must deal with.

But for me, a more top-down approach is required in tandem with these smaller methods to really make a global difference. My view sees a change to legislation and policy action. These types of changes attack the problem at the source, directly regulating and preventing harmful production [7]. Unfortunately, there is yet a comprehensive response and what has been put into place is not entirely useful [13].

If nothing is done quickly, we’ll soon be lost at sea. We must recognise the failings of our economic system and the unsustainable scale of the plastics industry. By raising awareness, improving legislation, and promoting alternatives collaboratively we’ll embed a positive economic operation that allows the ecosystem to give and recover effectively.

Chris Hazell

MSc Sustainability & Consultancy

profile chris 1 | 01/12/2018

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  13. Van Sebille, E., Spathi, C. & Gilbert, A., 2016. The ocean plastic pollution challenge: towards solutions in the UK. Grant. Brief. Pap, pp. 1-16.

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