Dying in a Sea of plastic

A shocking 12.7 million tonnes of plastic is estimated to end up in our oceans every year. Everything from plastic bottles and bags to microbeads clogging the marine ecosystems and contaminating the wild animals who live in them. Travelling on ocean currents this plastic is now turning up in every corner of our planet, from British beaches to uninhabited Pacific Islands. It is even being found trapped in Arctic ice.

Our oceans are slowly turning into a soup of plastic and the effects on ocean life are devastating. Big pieces of plastic are choking turtles and entangling seabirds. Microbeads are clogging the stomachs of creatures who mistake it for food, from tiny plankton to whales. Plastic is entering every level of the ocean food chain - and if you eat seafood - in your stomach!

Why is plastic bad for the oceans?

Over 80% of the plastic in our oceans comes from land-based sources. Ocean-based sources, such as overboard discharges from ships and discarded fishing gear, account for the other 20%.

Food and drink containers and packaging are the largest component of solid waste. These items, together with plastic bags, represent the largest component of marine plastic waste. Packaging and single-use disposable products are not only killing ocean life they represent an unsustainable use of precious resources - such as oil, trees, and water.

In the ocean, disagreed plastic injures and kills fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Marine plastic pollution has impacted hundreds of species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species. Most fatalities are a direct result of ingestion, a slow and painful death from starvation, suffocation, infection, or drowning.

Seabirds that feed on the ocean surface are especially prone to ingesting plastic that floats. Adults feed these items to their chicks resulting in detrimental effects on chick growth and survival. This was highlighted by the effect on Albatross chicks by Sir David Attenborough in the groundbreaking Blue Planet 2 series broadcast in 2017.

Floating plastics in the oceans have been found to accumulate pollutants and transport them via ocean currents, providing transport to invasive marine species. Increasingly, research shows that marine life that ingests plastics coated with pollutants can absorb these pollutants their bodies. Those same pollutants are now being found in the human food chain.

As the amount of disposable packaging and products continues to increase, controlling litter through public education and cleanup of streets and waterways requires significant and sustained funding for education. Our current wastage of plastic products in unsustainable, particularly, single-use, so-called disposable items such as straws, hot drink cups, bottles and can holders.

Save Me believe education is key to solving this problem. We have to stop the volume of plastic waste currently entering our oceans and that is best achieved by making people aware of the impact of their everyday waste. We have to stop making the problem worse whilst we try to clean up the waste we have already polluted our oceans and marine life with.

How much plastic is there in the ocean?

Greenpeace state a whopping 12.7 Million tonnes of plastic is estimated to end up in our oceans every year.

Most of our waste consists of everyday items such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags. Yet the vast majority of debris found floating far offshore is much smaller. Tiny fragments, broken-down by the ocean movement and rocks, smaller than your fingernail, are called microplastic. It is widely understood that the largest concentrations of floating microplastics occur in subtropical ocean currents, called gyres, where surface currents converge in an oceanographic “dead-end.”

These so-called “garbage patches” of microplastics are well-documented with data in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. However, very few surveys have ever been carried out in the Southern Hemisphere oceans and outside of the subtropical gyres. Small differences in the oceanographic models give vastly different estimates of microplastic abundance in these regions.

Floating micro plastics collected in plankton nets are the best-quantified type of plastic debris in the ocean, in part because they were initially noted by researchers collecting and studying plankton decades ago. Yet micro plastics represent a small part of the total amount of plastic now in the ocean.

“Plastic” is a generic term for a variety of synthetic polymers with variable material properties, including density. This means some common consumer plastics, such as PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate,) mainly used for clear plastic drink bottles, is denser than seawater and will sink upon entering the ocean. Measuring plastics on the seafloor is a huge challenge in shallow waters close to shore, no one yet knows how to measure across vast ocean basins where water depth is measured in KM’s.

We do know that these larger pieces of plastics will eventually become microparticles. Still, the time it takes for large objects, including consumer products, buoys and fishing gear, for example, to fragment to millimetre-sized pieces upon exposure to sunlight, remains unknown. Just how small those pieces become before (or if) they are degraded by marine microorganisms is even less certain, in large part because of the difficulty in collecting and identifying microscopic particles as plastics.

If we know that a massive amount of plastic is entering the ocean each year, what does it matter if it is a bottle cap on a beach, a lost lobster pot on the seafloor, or a nearly invisible particle floating thousands of miles offshore? If plastic waste were simply an aesthetic problem, perhaps it wouldn’t, but ocean plastics pose a threat to a wide variety of marine animals, so their risk is determined by the amount of plastic waste an animal encounters, as well as the size and shape of that waste.

To a curious seal, an intact packing strap (used to protect a box in transit) drifting in the water is a serious entanglement hazard. How many bits of floating micro plastic might be ingested by large filter-feeding whales who feed on microscopic plankton? Until we know where the millions of tons of plastics reside in the ocean, we can’t fully understand the full impact on the marine ecosystem.

What animals and birds are affected by Ocean plastics 

Article originally published by National Geographic 

Sea Turtles

Like many other marine animals, sea turtles mistake plastic waste for a viable food source, sometimes causing blockages in their digestive system. Although the declining sea turtle populations in the oceans are due to a variety of factors, most of which involve human exploitation, plastic pollution plays a significant role. 

Separate studies from 2013 suggest as many as 50 percent of sea turtles are ingesting plastic at an unprecedented rate and dying because of it. Another study of Loggerhead Turtles found that 15 percent of young turtles examined had ingested such enormous quantities of plastic that their digestive system was obstructed.

Seals and Sea Lions

Marine life can become entangled in a variety of ocean debris including fishing nets, lines, and lures. Still, there are a number of seals and sea lions that become entangled in plastic bags or plastic packing straps leading to injury and death.

In fact, plastic packing straps continue to impact the Steller Sea Lion population. An eight-year study in south-east Alaska and British Columbia documented 388 Sea lions entangled in plastic debris. These plastic packing straps can become so embedded in the animal that it can lead to severe infection and death.

Seabirds

Plastic pollution leads to the death of millions of marine bird species each year. The Albatross has been deeply impacted by plastic debris due to they're hunting technique. Albatross skim the surface of the ocean with their beaks to catch fish or squid but are now picking up plastic debris as well. Shockingly, an estimated 98 percent of Albatross studied were found to have ingested some kind of plastic debris. Once the plastic has been ingested, it causes an obstruction in the digestive tract that can puncture internal organs, leading to a slow and painful death.

Fish

Fish, along with pretty much any marine mammal that brings in water through its gills, are increasingly at risk to microscopic plastic debris. A study performed at the University of Exeter suggests that by breathing microscopic marine debris through its gills a fish or marine mammal could take up to six times as long to clear the debris than if it had ingested it orally. 

A number of studies suggest that the fish and seafood we consume have ingested plastic microbeads. Humans, at the top of the food chain, are at risk from biomagnification of plastic from our food. 

Whales and Dolphins

Like other marine mammals, whales often mistake marine debris for a potential food source. A whales mouth is so large it unknowingly picks up plastic debris (a technique observed in baleen whales). Necropsies performed after numerous whale stranding’s saw an increase in the amount of plastic debris found. A study also found that hundreds of species of cetaceans have been negatively impacted by plastic pollution in the past two decades. The ingested plastic often puncturing and tearing the stomach lining, leading to starvation and death. According to Marine Pollution Bulletin, cetaceans are ingesting plastic debris at a rate as high as 31 percent, and in turn, 22 percent of those cetaceans were at an increased risk of death.

Why is plastic harmful to ocean animals?

A new study sheds light on why so many seabirds, fish, whales, and other critters are gobbling up so much marine plastic debris. And it's not quite what scientists thought. 

As the oceans fill with plastic debris, hundreds of marine species eat astonishing amounts of it. Yet the question of why so many species, mistake so much of it for food has never been fully explored.

Now a new study explains why: It smells like food. Algae are consumed by Krill, a small crustacean that is the primary food source for many seabirds. As algae break down naturally in the ocean, they emit a stinky sulphur odour known as dimethyl sulphide (DMS). Seabirds in the hunt for Krill have learned that the sulphur odour will lead them to the feeding grounds. 

It turns out that floating plastic debris provides the perfect platform on which algae thrive. As the algae break down, emitting the DMS odour, seabirds, following their noses in search of Krill, are led into an “olfactory trap,” according to a new study published November 9 in Science Advances. Instead of feeding on Krill, they feed on plastic.

How can we keep Plastic out of our oceans?

Plastic waste is a global problem. It has been accumulating rapidly in the world’s oceans, roughly doubling every decade. In 2014, a global analysis measured ocean plastic at a quarter of a billion metric tons, much of it suspended in small rice-sized particles. More than 200 animal species have been documented consuming plastic, including turtles, whales, seal, birds, and fish. Seabirds are especially at risk; a study published last year by scientists in Australia concluded that virtually all seabirds have consumed plastic.

Scientists have long known that ocean plastic is consumed because it looks like food. Sea turtles, for example, often mistake flimsy, clear plastic bags for jellyfish. Other marine animals, including fish, gobble bits of rice-sized micro plastics broken down by sunlight and wave action because they resemble the small particles they normally ea 

Now scientists have discovered that DMS (dimethyl sulphide) as a strong predictor of plastic consumption and the “keystone info chemical” that drew marine animals to plastic as if it were Krill. Odour extraction tests confirmed that three common varieties of plastic acquired a “DMS signature” after less than a month in the Ocean. Scientists have also confirmed that the birds most attracted to the DMS odour are the Albatross, Petrels, and Shearwaters three species that are most severely affected by plastic consumption.

All three species nest in underground burrows, and juvenile birds spend many more months on the ground than birds that nest above the surface. Consequently, burrow-nesting birds rely much more heavily on their sense of smell to get around.

Could plastic lead to the extinction of marine species

While we might understand that plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is not a good thing, we are only just beginning to realise the impact that plastics have on marine ecosystems.

There are an estimated 270,000 tons of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean and according to a recent study authored by researchers at Plymouth University, a staggering 700 different marine species are threatened by its presence. More than this, researchers believe that plastic plays a role in rising rates of species extinction.

Research found that 693 species had been documented as having encountered plastic debris, with nearly 400 involving entanglement and ingestion. Between entanglement, ingestion and ecosystem damage, the threat of plastic pollution impacts marine species both large and small.

We have seen around 52 percent of the world’s wildlife disappear in the past 40 years, and if we continue to dump plastic into the world’s oceans, this number is set to increase exponentially. 

How can you reduce your consumption of plastic products?

The good news is that we can ALL do something. First, we need to accept that Humans are to blame for plastic pollution. However, this also means we have the power to stop this marine destruction. So, if you want to stand up for the world’s marine animals, the best place to start is with your personal plastic consumption.

Here are 9 top tips from Greenpeace:

1.Carry a reusable bottle

In the UK we use over 35 million plastic bottles every year! Carrying a reusable bottle is a great way to cut your plastic use and save money too! There’s even an app that tells you where you can refill your bottle for free! 

2. Say no to plastic straws

Plastic straws are bad news for our oceans. Next time you order a drink, think about whether you need a straw, and if you don’t, just say no! You can also ask your local pub to stop adding straws to drinks as standard and offer paper straws to those who want one. 

3.Take a reusable coffee cup

2.5 Billion coffee cups are thrown away every year in the UK – and less than 1 in 400 are recycled. Carry a reusable cup with you – some cafes even offer a small discount if you use your own cup (and if they don’t ask them why not)! 

4. Avoid excessive food packaging

Whether it’s making different choices in the supermarket or choosing a different place to shop, we can all try and cut down the plastic we buy. And as an added bonus, loose fruit and veg is often cheaper than pre-packaged alternatives!

5. Use refill stations for detergent

There are some products where it’s difficult to avoid a plastic container (for example washing up liquid or laundry liquid) – the good news is that there are an increasing amount of places where you can refill your old bottles.

6. Say no to disposable cutlery

We’ve all been there – caught out in a cafe or at a train station when we’ve bought a salad or a yogurt but the only cutlery on offer is plastic! Whilst it’s hard to plan for every opportunity, consider carrying a spoon or fork in your bag or keeping cutlery in your desk at work.

7. Get your milk delivered 

Although the early morning sound of a milk float is not as common as it used to be, there are still lots of places in the UK where you can get milk delivered in glass bottles – which are then collected and reused.

8. Avoid microbeads 

The good news is that the UK government have announced a ban on microbeads! However until the ban comes into force in 2018, there will still be products on the shelves, so keep checking those labels before you buy and avoid products containing polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon. 

9. Carry a shopping bag

Since the plastic bag charge was introduced in England, there’s been a massive 85% drop in their use. Many of us are used to carrying an extra bag with us – if you still find it hard to remember, try a foldaway one that you can carry in your normal day bag.

Just by making a few small changes can have a big impact on the amount of plastic we use on a day-to-day basis.