Continuing our content for Rivers to Oceans Week, this article dives into the issue of ocean plastics. Plastic debris in our oceans is continually increasing and causing a magnitude of problems throughout marine ecosystems.
Written by: Thomas Tinmouth
From Canva stock photos and MacBook screensavers to Instagram videos and Netflix documentaries, many wonders of the ocean have been displayed for the world to see. At some point or another, we have all been given a baseline understanding of what the ocean looks like, or at least what it’s supposed to look like. If you’re lucky enough in your lifetime to experience such natural wonders in person then consider yourself lucky, you were able to witness the true beauties of the ocean that many only get to see through screens. Pictures and videos cannot fully grasp the vastness of an ocean ecosystem. They are not able to transfer the same feelings of bewilderment, no matter how well done the production is. It doesn’t matter who you are, how tall, how rich, or how famous, the ocean will find a way to make you feel small.
When I was 12 years old I went snorkelling for the first time with my parents in Turks and Caicos. I was mesmerized by the colourful fish and bright fluorescent coral, making me feel as if I was introduced to a whole new world. Before we entered the ocean my dad was telling me about the great diving experiences he has had in the past and couldn’t wait for my brother and me to experience the same. This was an opportunity to pass on an experience that forces us to become vulnerable, part of an ecosystem rather than above it. Everything my father told me lived up to my expectations and more.
Now I’m 21, eager to capture more humbling experiences underneath the sea. Since I live far from the ocean, I spend my time soaking up as much information as I can to feed my curiosity, but there has been this nagging thought in the back of my mind throughout my research. If I go back to the same place to show my children the amazing experience of exploring underneath the sea, what exactly will I be showing them? Sadly, on this trajectory, their expectations will not be fulfilled. At this pace, they will never get to experience the same mesmerization of the oceans the way I did when I was 12. It is projected that by 2050 over 90% of the world’s coral will be dead, creating a cascading effect of death throughout the ocean. If we continue on this path, pictures and videos will be the only way to show future generations the beautiful system the ocean once was. All they will see is plastic, plastic, and more plastic.
Humans produce approximately 380 million tonnes of plastic on an annual basis. 50% of this plastic is single-use, which is used for a few minutes, but then stays on our planet for hundreds of years. Less than 10% of all plastics ever created have been recycled, instead ending up in the natural environment. 10 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in our oceans annually, which equals more than a large dump truck every minute. This is so much plastic that it is projected by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Since the 1950’s global plastic production has been on an exponential rise as manufacturers cling to a material that is easy to make, but impossibly hard to get rid of. Refer to figure 2 to see a global increase in plastic production since 1950. The scary part is there’s no sign of slowing down, with plastic production set to triple by 2040.
There are many ways that plastic finds its way into the ocean such as improper waste disposal and littering, but the fact is there is just too much plastic produced to be properly handled. One of the main ways plastic is streamlined into the ocean is through rivers. Between 0.47 to 2.75 million metric tonnes of plastic are brought to the ocean by rivers on an annual basis. There are 10 rivers that bring up to 93% of this plastic which are the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa.
Figure 3 shows the 10 most common pieces of ocean garbage found at coastal cleanups and their decomposition times. All 10 of these items are easily substitutable for reusable ones that will fulfill the exact same purpose. If this is not the case then they are items that support an unhealthy lifestyle. It takes a little bit of effort to implement reusable bags instead of plastic bags or reusable bottles instead of plastic bottles. Once you get the hang of remembering it will be like nothing changed! These actions seem small, but when they are compounded worldwide they will make a massive difference in the number of plastics entering our oceans.
It might come as a surprise that the majority of ocean plastic pollution comes from the fishing industry. In the great pacific garbage patch, the predominant items are fishing nets and fishing lines. Refer to figure 4 to see a comparison of fishing debris to other common ocean plastics by weight. These are unsustainable practices of fishermen littering into the oceans which is extremely dangerous for marine life as they get tangled in these nets and die. It takes around 600 years for fishing lines to decompose. Approximately 650,000 marine animals die every year due to discarded fishing nets.
Figure 5 is a video explaining one of the biggest problems when it comes to cleaning our oceans, microplastic. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size which have broken down from larger macroplastics sitting in the ocean. These microplastics are toxic to marine life and affect eating habits, block digestive tracts, reduce growth, and negatively alter the reproductive output.
In the last 10 years, we have produced more plastic than in the whole previous century. 50% of these plastics are single-use, meaning we use them for a couple of minutes and then discard them, taking years to break down. Plastic pollution is killing marine life and destroying our oceans. This must change if there is any hope for the survival of our oceans, and for the survival of humans. We must not lose sight of the fact that as we degrade our oceans we are also hurting ourselves. The ocean provides necessary things like food, climate control, and oxygen. Yes, we must act for the sake of humanity, but let’s also remember this is a system that not only should be saved because of its benefits, but also for the simplistic reason that it is alive and breathing, capable of feeling. Beauty that once gone, can never be replaced or explained. Screens will not do it justice.
Interested in learning more about our oceans? Find more articles here.