There is neither fun nor happiness in our behaviour towards Mother Nature. As mankind, we have stripped her of her rights to live and sustain all living things. We have pillaged from her more than what we can give back.
Producers and manufacturers are only creating products that serve one major purpose: our desire for convenience. When rethinking our relationship with plastics, it must start with the language we use. We need to stop thinking about whether it’s convenient for us, and start thinking of what a product is made of, where it comes from, what impact it has on earth, and how long it will last.
A plastic product’s lifespan, be it single-use or reusable, has been designed to last a long time and has long lasting effects that are ecologically harmful. Plastic became popular around the 1970s, and our addiction has increased in the last decades. The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that the amount of plastic that is globally produced today is in the range of 350 million metric tonnes (350 billion kilograms). This was presented graphically in Dr. Jennifer Lavers at Adrift Lab in 2019. The plastic industry is only going up and up – there are no signs of it slowing down.
Wildlife data starts in the mid-90s. Back then we know that around 265 marine species were negatively harmed by plastic – either by ingesting or by becoming entangled.
Today there are two kinds of major sources of data depending on which one you look at.
We are looking in the range of between 700 and perhaps upward of 2000 marine species negatively impacted by plastics. This is a significant change. The third and final piece of data is a global assessment of the amount of plastic in the ocean, completed in 2014. The global assessment focussed on the top 10 cm of the ocean. The number of plastic particles found is huge: 5,25 trillion pieces of plastic. That’s approximately 500 times the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The numbers are increasing rapidly and we need to do something. People often say, “It’s just one cup” and “It’s just one plastic bag”. That’s why we find ourselves where we are now.
Many plastic-polluted rivers are in Asian countries, like India for example. Major studies published in 2018 showed disturbing figures. Approximately 10 rivers that account for around 60-80% of the debris that comes from land into the ocean were largely in Southeast Asia.
Australia, on the other hand, does not deal with its own plastic waste but rather has been exporting its recycling and rubbish to Southeast Asia for decades.
Henderson’s beaches are covered with the highest density of plastic found anywhere in the world, with about 700 pieces of plastic per square meter, and 38 million pieces of plastic in total on this island.
Marine animals confuse plastic with pieces of food, and they feed plastic to their younger ones as well. Seabirds act as ‘sentinel species’ or ‘bio-indicators’. They are mainly found in the Coral Sea and the Tasmanian Sea. When animals consume plastic, it acts like what we call a ‘vector’; it introduces a whole range of things into that animal’s body. And that’s because when plastic is floating in the ocean, it acts as a magnet or sponge and absorbs all the chemicals that are floating in the sea. It then concentrates it into the surface of that piece of plastic, like a sponge. When a bird, turtle or a dolphin eats it, those chemicals that are on the surface of that plastic are released into this creature’s stomach, putting it at risk of those harmful chemicals.
Plastic can also act as a vector for things like microbes, viruses, potentially fungi, bacteria, and all kinds of things that shouldn’t be introduced into the stomachs of our wildlife. This kills our wildlife. But what happens when they don’t die? The creature eats enough plastic to harm it, but not enough to kill it. This is what we call ‘sub-lethal effects’. It is difficult for scientists to quantify because the sea creature is not dead.
The canary (bird) – our modern-day canary is the seabird of the ocean – it’s the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. Seabirds are declining faster than any other bird group on this planet. The marine canary is beginning to stop singing, signalling that the ocean is polluted. The total number of plastic pieces ever removed from one baby bird is 276 pieces – equivalent to 14,5% of the bird’s body mass.
Tell us: What do you think we can do to reduce plastics in the ocean?