The global predicament of plastic pollution entering the world’s oceans has been of growing concern since the increasing commercial use of plastics during the mid 20th century. Approximately 5.25 trillion particles of plastic weighing 270,000 tonnes are estimated to be currently floating on the oceans. As well as below the surface 10,000km deep, with the alarming discovery of a plastic bag in the Mariana Trench. The increase in production of plastics from 35 million metric tonnes in 1970 to 400 million in 2018 and a projected 500 million by 2025, is highly concerning for the future sustainability of our marine environments. With a rapidly enlarging global population and extensive reliance and demand for plastic products in our lives, the disposal of plastic materials into our environment is causing indefinite implications on the world’s marine ecosystems and human health. If carelessness and ignorance prevails on a global scale, by 2050 there may be more plastic by mass in our oceans than fish.
Of the approximate 10% of plastic produced annually that arrives in our oceans, the majority of these plastics contain non-biodegradable polymers including polyethylene, polystyrene, polyvinylchloride and polyester. However, the eventual degradation of larger primary plastics debris into smaller particles of secondary microplastics occurs over long periods of time, which are characterised by size with a diameter of less than 5mm. With the intention of improving the properties of plastics, the inclusion of chemical additives during their manufacturing can have detrimental health effects. When ingested by marine organisms, this can significantly impair the natural functioning of ecosystems and impact humans that consume them. Plastic pollution accumulation in our oceans occurs predominately at the 5 ocean gyres (large oceanic ‘whirls’) located within the Indian, North and South Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The most renowned collection of floating debris within these gyres is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (GPGP) in the North Pacific, with an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 80,000 tonnes. Its extent exceeds 1.6 million km2 which equates to three times the size of France. The issue of marine plastic pollution has gained increasing attention between 2013 to 2017, reflecting the emergent global concern and demand for further research. Despite this, international knowledge on the effects of the accumulation of plastic debris in our oceans is limited, and collaboration efforts are currently inadequate.
Causes and Extent of the Environmental Issue
The causes of plastic pollution in our oceans are abundant, with many of these complicated to address. The most prevalent of these arise from land-based sources, accounting for 80% of total plastic pollution in our oceans. This waste is transported to the ocean via natural means including storm water runoff, natural disasters such as tsunamis and the transportation of litter by wind into rivers or streams. This also includes anthropogenic activities such as sewage overflow as a result of poor management, and deliberate waste disposal, which accounts for less than 10% of ocean plastic pollution. The remainder arises from maritime activities, involving discarded fishing gear from vessels including nets, plastic bags, bait boxes and ropes going overboard.
Another significant reason is the increase in global population density and the wasteful choices of consumers, evident as plastic production reached 300 million tonnes in 2013 from 0.5 million tonnes in 1960, as indicated in Figure 1. As 50% of the population lives within close proximity of up to 80km of the ocean, coastal areas are particularly vulnerable.
Figure 1: Global Plastic Waste Production by Use Sector From 1950-2015
With advancing innovative ideas as a result of globalisation, consumers in modern society value time, efficiency and convenience, unfortunately at the expense of our environmental sustainability. Plastics have a variety of properties which enhances their practicality as they are malleable, durable, light, strong, cheap, and resistant to corrosion. This allows them to be highly versatile, for uses such as bottles, straws, cigarette butts, parachutes, toothbrushes, toys, Tupperware containers (reducing food wastage), bags, (for medical innovation in 3D printing), clothing, vehicles, etc. Popular companies such as Coca Cola intensify the issue as they are singularly responsible for 20% of worldwide plastic bottle production.
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Small plastic microbeads present in many personal care products including cleansers, toothpaste, facewashes and shower gels are washed down household drains. They are deposited into our oceans due to their failure to be removed from wastewater filters in water treatment plants. The discrepancy between governments in different nations further contributes to the lack of unified global intervention. Recycling, management, illegal waste dumping, landfill policies, waste collection and the level of enforcement of laws and regulations are unequal across the world. In particular, in developing countries where corruption and inadequate infrastructure are complicated matters to address.
Implications and Effects
Plastic pollution in our oceans has a vast array of detrimental effects on marine organisms and ecosystems, with approximately 700 species having adverse effects by their interactions with plastics. Accidental ingestion of plastics pellets, bottle caps, and small toys mistaken for food has critical consequences. These effect the health and survival of penguins, dolphins, seals, crustaceans, whales, marine reptiles, seabirds, fish and turtles. This causes decreased nutritional intake, which impacts digestion, impaired movement, blockages of the gastrointestinal tract, ulcers, starvation and weakening. Entanglement in floating plastic debris can injure larger marine fauna by internal wounds or choking, such as turtles, which trap themselves in floating plastic bags, misidentifying them as jelly fish. Studies have established that entanglement and ingestion of plastic pollution results in the deaths of more than 1 million birds annually.
The effects of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans effects ecosystems and compromises their stability. The accumulation of microplastics from phytoplankton, transfers hazardous substances including the chemical additive bisphenol A (BPA) along food chains to secondary consumers, with the possibility of reaching human consumption. These harmful endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) impact the physiology of living organisms which impairs homeostasis, growth, development, behavioural and metabolic processes, neurotransmission, fertility and gene expression. They destabilise lysosomal membranes, which are important functional organelles within cells containing enzymes that degrade and remove toxins. Floating plastic objects also transport of introduced species to foreign habitats, impacting local ecosystems and marine biodiversity.
The contamination of microplastics in our seafood such as shrimp, lobster and mussels may have significant but uncertain consequences for human health if consumed at a large scale. Ocean plastic pollution impacts the economy through affected commercial seafood industries by damage to fishermen’s vessels. Tourism industries are under threat as plastic pollution decreases the aesthetic value of an area, and can congest coastal coral reefs.
Global Strategies and Solutions
There are many global mitigation strategies that aim to address this issue. 24 research expeditions to the 5 ocean gyres between 2007-2013 have assisted in gaining knowledge of quantitative extent of plastic debris polluting our oceans. Initiatives such as the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-up are targeting the issue in a cost-effective manner. Alleviating pollutant materials directly from the environment through volunteer involvement, removed 8,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste through sustainable co-operative efforts in 2017. Focus has been directed towards the role of fishermen in addressing surface plastic debris through the Waste Free Oceans project. This encourages them to return plastic debris to shore, as well as abiding by oceanic regulations with the Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships in 2013 by the United Nations.
To address the UN’s sustainable development goal #14, projects such as the Clean Seas Campaign have been created to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution.” Media attention promotes policy action, public awareness, and the encouragement of ecologically sustainable consumer choices. This includes s carrying reusable plastic bags and bottles as alternatives to single-use plastic products. There has been acknowledgement by some global leaders regarding the environmental concern, with the British Prime Minister Theresa May adopting a 25 year scheme to reduce the demand and usage of plastics. This was achieved by introducing additional costs of 5 pence per plastic bag in 2015. This has proven to be effective in the UK in 2017 as 1 billion plastic bags were used, reduced from 1.4 billion in 2015. The need for intervention is starting to be globally recognised, with countries such as Kenya executing stricter regulations towards the use, import or export of plastic bags by labelling it as a criminal offence with fines of up to US$ 40,000.
In 2011, the Honolulu Strategy was created as a global framework to drive political, economic and environmental action. Governments have devised solutions such as increasing the number of ashtrays in public areas to promote regulated disposal of cigarettes and adding filters to washing machines to inhibit the transportation of small pieces of plastic from clothing from entering our oceans. Intervention to reduce microplastics production has occurred through regulations such as the ‘Microbead-Free Waters Act’ in the US which banned their production and usage in products from brands such as L’Oréal and The Body Shop. Many plastics are now being produced as BPA-free products, which contain alternative chemicals to mitigate the
concerning health risks associated with chemical additives in plastic bags being unintentionally consumed by humans.
Concerns with Current Policies & Procedures
Differing policies between governments worldwide is a major reason for the lack of more rigorous intervention in developing countries. The need to achieve consistency of strict waste disposal laws on a global scale is required for this issue to be adequately addressed.
The global failure of recycling plastics is shocking, as less than 10% of the world’s plastic has been recycled. A sustainable solution is increasing the production and use of biodegradable bioplastics produced from natural, renewable resources, which currently embodies only 1% of plastic production globally, or using alternative materials such as paper for manufacturing products such as straws, plates and bags.
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There is need for global involvement in imposing a treaty or shared regulations promoting “zero tolerance” to plastic pollution entering our oceans is imperative. This may involve discouraging the use of plastics by companies through incentives, sanctions and taxes by promoting producer obligation for recycling. Consumers need to be accountable for their choices in sustaining our environment. Emphasis should be directed towards eliminating routes of plastic entering our oceans and improving recycling infrastructure in developing nations. It is of great importance to incorporate this awareness into school curriculums to educate our younger generations. There needs to be well-defined, distinctive strategies put in place rather than vague guidelines such as, “internationally agreed rules, standards and practices,” as stated in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.
It is essential that additional action must be implemented to sufficiently address and mitigate this growing issue, as on average an individual discards up to 50kg of plastic each year. Even if the disposal and production of plastics suddenly ceased, they will continue to harm and effect aquatic ecosystems for decades. This is due to the prolonged nature of plastics remaining in the environment without rapid, biodegradable breakdown. However, it is highly unlikely this will occur. There needs to be a large investment of money and time with careful planning to sustain our planet for the future. The governments of developing nations are reluctant to participate in this environment issue, as there is little return in profit.
The research into ocean plastic pollution is highly inconclusive. There should be greater focus on seeking the most efficient plastic recycling methods, the ecological effects of microplastics through food chains, the implications for human health and biodegradable replacement materials. This view is reinforced by the article “Marine Plastics: Fragmentation, Effectiveness and Legitimacy in International Lawmaking,” which outlines that the lack of scientific certainty pertaining to oceanic plastic pollution is associated with the reluctance of people to willingly partake in clean-up projects. Further research is critical to gain momentum for further policy action by governments to seek alternatives to plastics and make innovative changes to our lifestyle.
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