Jan Andries van Franeker, a biologist with the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies at the University of Wageningen in Holland, has been studying seabirds for years. He has spent considerable time watching their feeding habits, and the effect of marine waste. He estimates that there are some 45 tonnes of plastic in the bellies of one species alone, the Northern Fulmari seagull.
How did it get there? The birds quite simply mistake small bits of plastic for food and eat it, or feed it to their young. Not only does the plastic sometimes damage their health, it also takes up space in their stomach to such a degree that many birds are dying of malnutrition. Their plight is echoed across the world, as animals such as sea turtles and fish are increasingly affected to varying degrees. Apart from the direct damage to wildlife, there is a very clear danger to the food chain as a whole as plastic micro-particles are passed from crustaceans to fish and perhaps to man.
In almost every large ocean such as the Pacific, floating masses of plastic have become known as “plastic soup”. On remote islands but also on our beaches close to home, large quantities of plastic are being washed up, some as large as crates, others as tiny as sand granules.
Where does marine waste come from?
The figures around marine waste are impressive. There are literally thousands of tonnes floating around the world’s oceans. The origin varies from region to region. Whereas in the North Sea, up to 95% of waste comes from marine activitiesii (fishermen’s nets, crates, ropes and objects dumped from ships), in other areas the waste comes mainly from land. Globally, it is calculated that 80%iii comes from land, usually arriving in the sea through rivers or blown by wind. The plastics often arrive in the river through the sewage system, when rubbish in the street is washed down the drains, for example.
As the problem is spread across the oceans, it is not very visible. However, the so-called Pacific Gyre, a mass of floating plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean, is estimated to weigh anywhere between 12 and 280 tonnesiv. The remarkable difference between these estimates is an indication of the difficulty of establishing figures across such a huge expanse of water, and for particles that could be as small as grains of sand. Every conceivable plastic object can be found, from plastic forks, to bottles, jerry cans, Frisbees and helmets. One item is more harmful than others: tiny plastic pellets.
Even though there are recent cases of plastic waste being used by some animals as a habitatv (remarkably to lay their eggs), the overall effect is very damaging.
To help visualize how much waste is floating out there, in one clean-up operation last year volunteers removed well over 4 million kilos of trash from over 33,000 kms of shorelines, rivers and lakes. That’s over 120 kilos per kilometer of shore. The majority of this was actually cigarette butts, but plastic featured heavily – particularly bottles and their caps.
What is being done?
Taking all the waste out of the water - which is sometimes seen as a simple and effective solution – is simply not feasible. The problem is not just the quantity of marine litter; it’s also the fact that much of it is in the form of micro-particles too small to be caught by a net. Although there are numerous clean-up operations worldwide, they alone could never address the scale of the problem. And if there is still a stream of new “waste” coming into the oceans, the problem will remain with us.
A number of initiatives – from NGOs, companies, industry associations, schools and individuals - are running with the aim of:
- increasing awareness
- researching the scope of the problem
- reducing the arrival of plastic pellets in waterways
- cooperating with the value chain to develop new products or packaging with reduced impact
- improving waste management
- promoting behavioral change.
What can I do?
The issue of plastic soup is very much about our behavior. On a personal level, it is quite straightforward: we have to recycle, re-use or dispose of all our plastic properly. Above all, we have to reduce the quantity that is blown away, dropped in the streets, abandoned by the side of the road or that goes to landfill. Every little helps.
Pushing for greater levels of recycling, re-use or even energy recovery through incineration will vastly reduce the impact of a problem that affects us all, directly or indirectly.
Numerous groups are also involved in cleaning rivers and beaches. They always welcome a few extra hands! Check locally what is being done. We all have a role to play. If you know of any events in your area, why not post the details as a comment on the article?
Some of the groups that are working towards cleaner oceans:
http://plasticsoupfoundation.org/wat-kun-jij-doen/ (the Netherlands)