How does the consumption of plastics affect our oceans?
Whether we like it or not, plastic is part of our daily life. Bags, containers, kitchen utensils, various objects ... even garments and shoes contain plastic elements as something usual. And why is plastic used so much? The advantages for the industry are threefold: it is a versatile, durable and, above all, cheap material, which allows mass production at very low costs.
But the proliferation of plastic is causing serious environmental problems. Each year tons of plastics, a seemingly invisible but highly harmful waste, go into our seas and oceans.
A Plastic Ocean
The problem of plastic has been the subject of numerous documentaries. One of the latest is A Plastic Ocean, directed by the Australian journalist Graig Lesson. The production, which can be seen on Netflix, shows the impact of plastic waste on the marine ecosystem in more than 20 places in the world. The documentary follows a group of researchers and activists and also collects the repercussions of underwater plastic on the communities that live around these areas.
The environmental organization Greenpeace has also repeatedly denounced the situation of our seas. It gathers worrisome data in its report Plastics in the oceans:
- Every second 200 kilos of plastics go into our seas and oceans.
- Every year 8 million tons of plastic waste are thrown into the sea, equivalent to the material of 800 Eiffel towers.
- The seabed accumulates about 50 billion plastic fragments, according to estimated data.
- There are 5 "plastic waste islands" on the planet: two are in the Pacific, two more in the Atlantic and third in the Indian Ocean. The waste islands are floating accumulations of micro plastics formed by particles of under 5 mm.
If we go on as up to now, it is estimated that by 2020 plastic waste will increase by 900% compared to 1980 records. According to specialists, by 2050 there will be almost more plastic in the sea than fish.
And what is happening in Spain? Every day about 30 million cans and plastic bottles that end up polluting the marine environment are abandoned on Spanish beaches and coastal areas. On average, some 320 waste products accumulate within the space of 100 metres of beach, of which 70% are plastics.
Where do the plastics that reach the sea come from?
When the waste is managed appropriately, the plastics that we leave in the recycling containers go to landfills, where they are incinerated and subsequently recycled. However, there is a large volume of plastic waste that ends up in the sea in different ways:
- Thrown deliberately in the sea.
- Falling accidentally off boats.
- Effluents (waste elements) from purifying units and treatment plants.
- Urban area water drainage systems.
It is estimated that 80% of the plastic waste that accumulates in the sea comes directly from the land, and the remaining 20% from maritime activity. A large part of this marine debris is found in coastal areas close to populated areas like large cities or tourist resorts. Another common location for plastic waste is the maritime space where intensive fishing takes place.
Impact of plastics in the sea
Plastic breaks down much slower in marine environment than on land. The waste’s low exposure to sunlight delays the decomposition processes, and also its contact with cold water. The action of the waves accelerates the process, but breaks the plastic into very small pieces that take a long time to decompose.
According to Greenpeace, it is estimated that a plastic bottle takes about 500 years to completely disappear. Plastic cutlery takes about 400 years, while bags remain in the water for around 55 years. The material that takes longest to decompose is the plastic from fishing lines, which do not break down until six centuries have passed.
The impact of plastic parts on marine life is multiple. Numerous fish are entangled in the waste and end up dying of suffocation. But there is a special problem related to the micro plastics that remain floating on the sea surfaces. These small plastics, less than 5 mm in size, can be ingested by fish, crustaceans and plankton and cause blockages in their digestive system. Micro plastics also incorporate chemical contaminants that can end up in our food through the food chain.
Impact of maritime waste on the economy
The accumulation of plastic waste not only harms the marine fauna, it also has repercussions on the economy. The most direct example we have is the so-called "ghost fishing" caused by the nets and gear left in the sea. These nets trap many fish that end up dying, thus reducing fishing stocks.
In Europe alone, the cleaning of coasts and beaches costs the administrations around 630 million euros each year. The tourist sector also suffers the consequences; the presence of waste on the coasts can offer a negative image that reduces the number of visitors.
What can we do for our oceans?
The solution to the accumulation of plastics lies largely in the hands of governments. Effective waste management is essential, but other legal measures are needed to help prevent marine waste. Some are already under way, such as the obligation to pay for plastic bags in stores. The environmental organisations also demand that alternative materials to plastics be promoted.
A greater awareness-raising work that involves people in the preservation of nature is also fundamental. The citizens also have much to contribute here:
- Avoid the use of plastic bags: when shopping, we should take home cloth or paper bags. Some supermarkets sell thick reusable plastic bags, which can be used several times without buying new ones. Recovering the shopping trolley is another highly recommended option.
- Prioritise glass bottles over plastic bottles or cartons.
- Choose bulk products: there are now numerous shops that offer weight-based products, such as soaps, shampoos, dishwashing liquids, legumes, etc. The establishments provide containers, but it is better that we take them from home to avoid accumulating more plastics.
- Reject single-use articles and containers: plastic cups, cutlery and plates are very practical, especially at parties and celebrations, but it is better to use traditional glassware or crockery. Even if we have to wash dishes, it's worth the effort.
- Avoid buying products wrapped in plastic: reject fruits and vegetables sold on polystyrene trays. Choose eggs in cardboard or buy them loose and take your own egg box.
- Try replacing the plastic containers with jars or glass containers.
- Reduce or eliminate film.
- Take your own containers when you buy food to take away.
- Change the disposable razors for the classic razors that allow the blades to be changed.
- Substitute plastic lighters with wooden matches, or use rechargeable lighters.
- And, above all, put the plastics in the right container.
The key is to shop consciously and adopt new habits. Applying the rule of the three R's (reduce, recycle and reuse) is simpler than we think; we only have to do our part and recover the mentality of our grandmothers, who lived all their lives without plastic, Tupperware or polystyrene wrappings.