Marine Life and Plastic Pollution

Marine life and plastic pollution do not mix well. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), at least 8 million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans every year. Imagine dumping 18,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets into the ocean every year and you can see the scale of the plastic problem.

Research shows that more than 800 coastal and marine species are directly affected by plastic waste through entanglement, ingestion, or damage to their habitats. Studies show that 90% of seabirds, and 52% of all turtles on the planet have consumed plastic.

The result: a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die annually because of plastic waste.

How Plastic Kills Marine Life

Plastic waste ingested by marine animals takes up room in their stomachs, causing dehydration, malnutrition, and eventually death.

Seabirds can mistake plastic for food and then feed it to their chicks. Often, these birds can be found dead with their stomach full of plastic. While their bodies have decomposed, the waste in their gut will end up in sand to be found another animal or be washed back into the ocean.

In 2019, a dead young whale found south of the Philippines had 88 pounds of plastic inside its stomach. It died from gastric shock caused by dehydration as whales get fresh water from the food they eat.

Plastic bags look very similar to jellyfish, fishing nets often look like tasty seaweed. Sea turtles think they’re consuming some of their staple foods when really they’re introducing harmful substances into their digestive tract.

Plastic ingestion can kill turtles by blocking the gut or piercing the gut wall, and can cause other problems through the release of toxic chemicals into the animals’ tissues. -Dr Qamar Schuyler from UQ’s School of Biological Sciences

Aside from ingesting plastic, marine animals can also become trapped by fishing nets or even injured by plastic straws. Who could forget the viral turtle with a straw stuck in one of its nostrils?

How Does Plastic Get into the Ocean?

Only about 12% of plastic is recycled, according to McKinsey & Company. A study of Earth’s global river systems by The Ocean Cleanup found that 80% of ocean plastic pollution comes from about 1,000 rivers of  Earth’s 100,000 rivers. That’s 1% of the rivers generating 80% of the ocean plastic pollution.

These rivers are mostly bordered by a human population that has inadequate pollution prevention measures due to poverty or a lack of waste disposal infrastructure or both.

When not dumped directly into a river, wind, rain, floods, and smaller wastewater carry plastic to the ocean. This means even plastics from non-coastal areas have a chance of ending up in the ocean.

Plastic Garbage Patches

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, is the largest trash site on Earth. It’s 1.6 million square kilometers in size or twice the surface area of Texas. It comprises the Western Garbage Patch (located near Japan), and the Eastern Garbage Patch (located between Hawaii and California).

Similar areas, caused by ocean currents, can be found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Plastic items you’ll find here range from  flip flops to fishing nets to bottles to laundry baskets, and nearly every other type of consumer plastic you can think of.

Not only is it a floating mass of waste, but it also contributes to the heaps of garbage on the seafloor beneath since not all types of debris float.

Microplastic

Plastics exposed to sunlight and wave movement degrade to become microplastic, which is defined as pieces less than 5 millimeters long. They make their way into the stomachs of fishes and other marine species, moving through the entire food chain. While microplastics are confined to the gut, which we usually do not eat, that cannot be said about the chemical constituents of the microplastic which could end up in the tissue that we do eat.

(If that’s not bad enough, microplastics can also be found in almost every possible natural environment from beaches, to our water, agricultural soil, salt, food, everywhere.)

Cleaning Up Ocean Plastic

Mentioned above, The Ocean Cleanup One taking action on ocean rehabilitation. Founded in 2013, their project’s aim is to develop and scale technologies to eliminate much of the world’s ocean plastic in a short span of time. This kind of organization keeps our hope alive that vision, innovation, and determination will make progress possible. Here’s a video of their team sorting their largest “catch” to date.

In this video, we see the challenges of recycling ocean plastic. After collecting the plastic garbage, it is very hard to sort the different kinds of plastic, which must be done for it to be recycled. To realize how much effort and resources are needed to tackle this issue, here’s a part of the video’s description:

“The ocean is big. Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using conventional methods – vessels and nets – would take thousands of years and tens of billions of dollars to complete. After fleets of The Ocean Cleanup systems are deployed into every ocean gyre, combined with source reduction, The Ocean Cleanup projects to be able to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.”

Stopping it at the source (really, the only viable clean up solution)

Recycling isn’t a significant solution as relatively little plastic is recycled into new products because recycling plastic is more expensive than making new plastic. It also cannot be recycled indefinitely as can glass and metal.

The cost and complexity of recycling ocean plastic makes it a last resort method to solving the problem. Intercepting plastic waste before it reaches the ocean is easier and more effective than scooping it up after the fact. Not to mention that recycling plastic is more expensive than making new plastic

Individuals, companies, and governments are making an effort to do just that.

Governments are funding the installation of sewage systems in some high-pollution areas to eliminate the practice of using rivers as a combined landfill and sewage system. Mandates that ban plastic checkout bags at supermarkets, plastic straws, etc.

At home, eco-friendly consumers are switching from plastic to more eco-friendly materials such as paper, metal, and glass.