The Plastic Problem: Oceans on the Brink

We all use plastic, but just how much do we use? Alone, the UK uses over 5 million tonnes of plastic every year; this includes approximately 15 million plastic bottles every day. Each year Europe recycles over 6 million tonnes of plastic. Despite the increased effort to recycle as much as possible, the convenience provided by plastic makes it unlikely that the problem will disappear anytime soon. It is estimated that approximately 70% of all plastic is used for ‘single use’ items including; plastic bottles, food packaging and drinking straws. This addiction is having a devastating impact on biodiversity.  We are now producing approximately 20 times more plastic than we did in the 1960’s (Griffin, 2016). Some estimates also suggest that within the next 35 years there will be more plastic in the sea than fish (MacArthur, 2016). The biggest impacts are being witnessed in the ocean, where images of turtles feeding upon carrier bags and cetaceans becoming entangled are all too familiar. Such images often shock and provoke thought but what about the plastic we can’t see?

Plastic doesn’t simply disappear but rather breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces which become microscopic. The scale of this problem is scary with Sebile et al (2015) estimating that there is between 15 and 51 trillion micro plastic particles in the ocean, weighing anything up to a staggering 236 000 tonnes. As more and more research is carried out we are starting to witness the impact of this problem with vast amounts of plastic entering the food chain at planktonic level, which could have a devastating impact on plankton and the vital role it plays.  We know that micro plastic is also found throughout the food chain and many studies have investigated plastic contamination in seabirds (Wilcox et al, 2015; Codina-Garcia et al, 2013 and Ryan, 1987) and fish (Cannon et al, 2016; Romeo et al, 2015 and Foekema et al, 2013). Fish contaminated with plastic have the potential to enter the human food chain (especially via shell fish which are often eaten whole), along with colleagues I’m currently researching the scale (and other factors) of this problem in Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus) which have been sourced at point of sale (Collier, Bentley and Gaion, 2016). Perhaps more alarming is the contamination of commercial species with toxins which are found within plastics (Barry, 2009) this issue is currently a key area of research.

The scale of the problem is massive, so what can be done? We have already seen the passion of individuals in the Devon town of Modbury lead by example and ban plastic bags. Such action helped to influence the levy on plastic bags in the UK. The Marine Conservation Society have been raising awareness through their annual beach cleans and using data to lobby policy makers. More recently we have seen government act to ban the use of microbeads and public campaigns declaring ‘war on waste’. All environmental change comes from the will of the people, you can help by being a responsible consumer and review your own personal use and consumption of plastic. How much do you use? How much do you recycle? What do you put down the toilet? Have you used your voice to raise awareness and campaign? The time to act is now.

An article by Stuart Collier