It is pretty much guaranteed that at some point in your daily life, you will come into contact with plastic. You may find it holding your cereal in the morning and wrapped around your sandwiches at lunch time. It could be used to carry your shopping home or hold drinks in the fridge. The use of plastic may seem to be secondnature to many of us now but sadly its convenience is at a price. The results of an international study have shown that there is now enough plastic to wrap the earth in a layer of cling film, with around five billion tonnes of it produced since the end of the World War II – a significant amount with a significant impact. With the 5p bag charge recently introduced in the UK, the issue is certainly being highlighted, but what is the true cost of plastic bags on the marine wildlife world?
In terms of quality of life and survival, the answer is expensive. A recent study conducted by the environmental organisation ‘Ocean Conservancy’ has indicated that whilst abandoned fishing gear poses the most significant risk to sea life, coming in close second is waste pollution in the world’s waters. The media are consistently littered with reports of wildlife caught in abandoned plastic bags, tangled in neglected six-pack rings or discovered with stomachs full of discarded bags. In 2013, for example, a young dolphin was rescued by a group of fisherman off the coast of Sao Paulo in Brazil after becoming entangled in a plastic bag. Struggling to stay afloat and clearly in distress, the calf appeared to be thankful when the fisherman carefully lifted it onto the boat and untangled it before placing it back into the water. Likewise, in 2015, a melon-headed whale was found dead on a Florida beach, and when a necropsy was carried out, a large bag was discovered blocking the animal’s intestinal tract. And beaked whales like Cuvier’s beaked whale frequently are found with a lot of plastic objects in their stomachs. Last summer an endangered Olive Ridley turtle had to have an object removed from its nose which turned out to be a plastic straw; and in Australia, the Taronga Wildlife Hospital has been inundated with Little Penguins all requiring treatment for injuries caused by plastic. Plastic pollution is not species specific. It can harm any creature that comes into contact with it and is clearly an increasing issue.
It is important to note that it’s not only large pieces of plastic damaging the environment. When broken down by UV rays, wind and wave erosion, these large fragments break into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microscopic. These tiny pieces are then ingested by creatures like krill, which sit at the bottom of the food chain, and the plastic subsequently progresses up the food chain, increasing in toxicity through the process of bio magnification. This means that whilst marine life is being harmed, we are too, and with very harmful consequences like cancer and reproductive developmental issues, it is certainly something that needs to be addressed. According to reports, at the rate we’re going in the production and disposal of plastic, by 2025, it is possible that for every 3 tonnes of fish there may be 1 tonne of plastic. From the bottom of the food chain to the top, each and every one of us is and will be affected.
In order to help tackle this ever-growing problem, scientists at the Imperial College in London have invented a device to help filter debris from the water. By attaching a number of “V” shaped barriers to the seabed using a screen suspended below, they hope to trap plastic caught in the ocean currents which will then be funneled to a platform where it will be stored until it can be removed for recycling. In addition to this, a pair of surfers from Perth, Australia have designed a floating rubbish bin designed to catch not only plastic debris but also detergents and oil on the surface. By placing the devices in sheltered marinas and harbours, the natural ocean currents trap the pollution which can then be filtered out through a water pump and removed without trapping or harming any marine life.
There are many people working hard to reduce our synthetic effects, and so, on a more personal level, what steps can we take in order to reduce our plastic impact on the environment? It’s simple, follow the 3 “R”s:
REDUCE: In order to prevent more waste entering the oceans, it’s important to reduce the risk by cleaning up our beaches. Why not attend one of the many beach clean-ups around the UK, or maybe organise your own?
REUSE: Every day we come into contact with plastic on a regular basis and whilst some of it may be recycled, unfortunately some of it cannot. Instead of throwing used plastic away, finding other uses for it can be a fantastic way of limiting its effect on the environment.
REFUSE: Charging 5p per plastic bag is certainly a step forward in terms of reducing the amount of waste entering our oceans, but straws and bottles are also responsible for many needless deaths in the world’s waters. Instead of cheap plastic straws, why not switch to biodegradable paper straws instead or refuse to use them altogether and take your own bags to the supermarket!
Plastic pollution is having devastating effects upon marine species – entanglement to inhalation, ingestion to consumption, from the tiniest fragments to the largest pieces; every bit of plastic entering the water has a catastrophic consequence. Something needs to change and if that means spending that little bit more on a bag for life, go for it. It could save a thousand lives!
Image: Chris Jordan (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters) (2009)