Earth Day 2018: #EndPlasticPollution Before It Ends the World

Throughout 2018 our marine biologists here at Love The Oceans will be doing blog posts on topics of Named Days throughout the year. To keep up to date, follow this blog, also found under the ‘News’ tab on our website. Without further ado, in celebration of Earth Day 2018, I introduce our eighth blog in this marine series:

Earth Day 2018: #EndPlasticPollution Before It Ends the World

Happy Earth Day! The goal of #EarthDay2018 is to #EndPlasticPollution. Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental issues we face today, rivalling the severity of climate change, and the magnitude of the problem will only increase over the next decades.

If you’re a frequent reader of our blog, you’re probably thinking: “Plastic pollution… I know all about it – you’ve already done several posts on that”. And you’re absolutely right. Now, before you decide to read no further – here’s why you need to read about plastic pollution (again):  We have already covered two possible solutions to the plastic problem, to refuse and reuse plastic. What we haven’t covered yet is the big WHYWhy should we end plastic pollution?

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Many of us might think of plastic pollution as a purely aesthetic problem. Plastic bottles towering up in landfills, plastic bags floating around in our oceans and cigarette butts littering the streets are unsightly – but is it really that big a problem? And surely, it’s a problem somewhere else (far away from me), right? Unfortunately, we are way past the point of plastic pollution only being an aesthetic problem. Plastic is now an integrated part of our ecosystems, whether we like or not.

Plastic pollution is an increasing problem, especially in the marine environment: Plastic constitutes up to 80% of marine debris and it is estimated that 5,250 billion pieces of plastic with the combined weight of 268,940 tonnes are floating around in our oceans.

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One of the biggest, and until recently most underestimated, problems concerning plastic pollution is that rather than just degrade plastic disintegrates turning into microplastics (particles <1-5 mm). Big pieces of plastic might be unattractive, but at least they are fairly easy to clean up. Microplastics on the other hand are a completely different matter: While microplastics might be out of sight, they are most certainly still there. Or rather – they’re everywhere.

Odds are you ingested microplastics today: Did you drink water? – microplastics.Did you put salt on your food? – microplastics. Did you eat fish or seafood? – most certainly microplastics ! So yes, plastic is definitely a big problem – and it’s your problem. No, the water bottle that you just binned won’t end up on your plate straight away, but once it has been broken down into microplastics it will eventually find its way into your food or water without you being able to pick it out. Seems surreal? Well, eating (micro)plastics is unfortunately becoming an everyday event, not just for us, but also for the majority of the world’s wildlife.

Current research shows that 86% of sea turtle species and 44% of all seabird species either become entangled in or ingest plastic debris, and it is estimated that 99% of all seabirds will be eating plastic by 2050 if nothing is done to change the current trend.

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Eating plastic is problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. It leads to malnutrition or starvation: Plastics simply fill up the stomachs of wildlife preventing them from ingesting proper food items, slowly killing the animals by starvation.
  2. It bio-accumulates: Once microplastics have been ingested, they rarely (if ever) leave the body again, which means the concentration of plastic increases the higher an animal is in the food chain.
  3. It acts as a vector for toxins and persistent organic pollutants: Toxins, such as PCB, that are known to have adverse effects, can easily be introduced to the organism through ingestion of microplastics. Combined with the effect of bio-accumulation, microplastics have the potential for introducing high concentrations of toxins and persistent organic pollutants.

Filter-feeding megafauna, including the humpback whales, manta rays and whale sharks that we at Love The Oceans are working to protect, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of microplastics. Manta rays, whale sharks and baleen whales ingest anywhere between 100 pieces and several 1000 pieces of microplastics a day, depending on how severe the plastic pollution is in the feeding ground.

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Infographic source: The New Plastic Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics (World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, 2016).

So, that was the big WHY. Now, all that is left is – HOW? Here are a few suggestions on how you can get started:

  1. Reduce your consumption by swapping to plastic-free alternatives: Check out our blog for how to.
  2. Reuse: Only 14% of all plastic packaging is recycled – do your bit to make sure it’s recycled and not just burnt.
  3. Sign up for a beach clean near you.
  4. Pay someone else to do it: At Love The Oceans we have committed to removing over 100kg of marine debris (the vast majority of it plastic) from our local beaches in 2018 – in addition we also commit to removing 2kg marine debris for every item you buy on our website.

Happy #EarthDay2018! Get started today so we can #EndPlasticPollution together.