Swimming in a deep plastic ocean

Following on from last weeks post on the “Bay of Biscay Dolphin Massacre” I wanted to this week turn attention to another marine crisis that we are facing…plastic!

Firstly before we touch on the deeper details of this growing ocean disaster, watch the following video I came across on Instagram this week from Ocean Photographer Juan Oliphant, hard-hitting stuff for anyone that loves the ocean. If you click off after the video and read no more at least I’ve exposed you to some content that may help change your thoughts towards our plastic problem. 

So firstly how is this plastic entering our oceans? 

Greenpeace quotes that 80% of litter in the seas is coming from land. With I’m ashamed to say, one-fifth of marine litter made up of commercial fishing gear (such as nets, lines and floats) and other materials accidentally lost at sea by accident.

Let’s look at the first fact here, “80% of litter in the seas is coming from the land”; What happens is Plastic waste is at risk of entering our ocean both while being collected and transported, especially in less environmentally conscious countries. Even when it’s in landfills, plastic is at risk of blowing away and ending up in rivers or oceans.

Luckily in the UK, we have become better at transporting our waste than other countries but our issues lie both with waste arriving from overseas and the plastic that is simply dropped or left behind on streets and beaches of the UK. Yes some of us believe we don’t litter, but it happens and the only way around it is educating.

Back to it…this plastic then gets carried by wind and rain into our drainage networks or rivers and where do all rivers lead…the sea!  It’s now estimated that major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastic into the sea every year – that’s up to 100,000 rubbish trucks dumped into our oceans year on year. Figures have been given by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that “by 2050 at the current rate there will be more plastic in the sea than fish”.

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What’s happening currently?

Although we have made good efforts to reduce our waste and improved our awareness of recycling, it is still estimated that just 9% of plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled. Another sad reminder of our neglect is that each day thousands of plastic products are being flushed away every day and where sewage treatment lacks…ending up in our oceans. Common offenders include; cotton buds, face wipes or sanitary products, all items that can easily be prevented from spending nearly 600 years degrading in our oceans. We can easily avoid this by not only not flushing but seeking non-plastic alternatives.

To shed some light on some good that’s been done, we have seen in the last year the abolishment in the UK, USA and Canada of the use of tiny pieces of plastic known as microbeads. These were added to all sorts of cosmetic products (face scrubs to shower gels to toothpaste) and then end up washed down the drain. As many of these microbeads are too small to be filtered out by wastewater plants, the plastic pieces get a free trip to the ocean. This is where the real danger comes, it only takes a basic understanding of how food chains work to understand the next term I’d like to introduce you to…bioacumilation.

What is bioaccumulation?

Bioaccumulation by definition is “the accumulation of toxins or other chemicals in an organism, that can then be passed up the food chain”. To save boring you the below diagram sums up nicely what is happening. The bottom end of the food chain is taking in the plastic then as these creatures are eaten and then stored by other animals, which in turn get eaten by other fish and predators thus meaning the plastic toxins build up each stage of the food chain we move up till we reach potentially deadly levels by the end. This not only harmful to the fish themselves but us as humans who eat them, thus ingesting the toxins ourselves

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You’ll often hear the phrase “plastics take years to decompose” but the truth is very little bacteria will ever break down these “polymolecules” and one of the main ways that plastics degrade is by a process called photodegradation. The process of UV rays breaking down plastic. Over time, this can turn a big piece of plastic into lots of little pieces…amongst the beach cleaning community there’s a nickname “Mermaid’s Tears” given to tiny pieces of plastic washed up on our shores, these were originally the pellets that are transported and used to make items, but so often end up in our oceans through transport. To keep these pellets company on our shorelines we are now finding small chunks of plastics that are the result of plastics washed up on our shores many years ago. Smoothed and matted by the waves and tides, they are the tragic modern equivalent of sea glass.

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Photo – Surfers Against Sewage

The topic of single use plastic is becoming a hot topic amoungst communities and with laws set to drop from EU and further afield by 2020 we may see plastic forks and straws become a thing of the past. However it demands a shift in consumer behaviour and wants, and guess what…all of us are in a position to help dictate that!

What can we do to prevent this rise in marine plastic?

Luckily there’s plenty of ways we can reduce this, firstly by simply using less plastic, simple things like;

  • Paper cotton buds as opposed to plastic ones.

  • Ditch the plastic straw or take the option of a paper one instead.

  • Avoid buying bottled water and instead have a chosen bottle that you refill.

  • Have a reusable or old shopping bag to take to the shops – single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade.

  • Take your own travel mug with you when you next grab a takeaway coffee – most coffee shops will happily fill it for you such as Costa and if they don’t explain how encouraging customers to do this can cut their costs and help the planet.

  • Avoid excessively packaged items- certain items come enclosed in multiple wrappers if you’re aware of these products avoid them.

  • Avoid any single-use items where possible; disposable razors, disposable cutlery and lighters.

  • Use a milkman service – Yes the humble old milk man was ahead of his time, reusing glass bottles and delivering straight to your door cutting out the plastic cartons and walk to the local store.

Simple organisations that exist that can help you help the oceans plastic crisis:

2 Minute Beach Clean – this simple idea started on social media as a trend to get people collecting marine litter off their local beach each visit and has now grown into an exciting UK wide initiative. Check them out here.

Surfers Against Sewage – This organisation has done a tremendous amount of work for a lot more than just surfers over the last 28 years. They were the organisation that started the shift in reducing the amount of raw sewage around our coastlines, in particular, Wales and Cornwall while the marine plastic and beach clean work they strive for currently is superb and well worth following. Visit their site to learn more.

A reused cotton bud to tie a Sea Trout Tube Fly

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