First introduced in the 1950s, plastic was seen as a miraculous, cheap, lightweight material (Laist, 1987) that could just be thrown “away” after use. The problem is that we quickly realised that there is no “away” with plastic. Plastic does not ever truly go away. Most plastic doesn’t biodegrades and remains in the environment for hundreds of years. The plastic bottles, bags, straws and take away containers that we use just for a few minutes are simply made with a material that is designed to last forever. Every bit of plastic ever made still exists today and while 5% of plastics are recycled effectively, 40% end up in the landfill and 15% in fragile ecosystems such as the ocean, our life-support system.
Scientists have found plastic in every part of the ocean where they have looked. From the deepest part of our planet, the Mariana Trench to the most remote beaches of the world. In fact, they recently discovered that the uninhabited South Pacific Island, “Henderson Island” was covered by 18 tonnes of plastic. This is the highest density of anthropogenic debris that has ever been recorded anywhere in the world. Not to mention the five gigantic garbage patches where trillions of decomposing plastic items and other trash concentrate because of ocean currents. While 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year, it is estimated that by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight.
In the ocean, plastic debris injure and kills all marine species from fish to seabirds and marine mammals as a result of ingestion, starvation, infection, suffocation and entanglement. Marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species (Laist, 1997). According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, 56% of all whale and dolphin species have been recorded eating marine plastics often mistaken for food.
While plastic never deteriorates, it breaks down through photodegradation, into smaller and smaller pieces that are invisible to the human eye. Those tiny particles also called “micro-plastics” are ingested by small marine organisms and have now integrated the entire food chain. And they also leach out colorants and chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and absorb pollutants from seawater which is even more dangerous for marine life and us… Small, mostly invisible and toxic, these micro-plastics are home to a new ecosystem: the plastisphere…
Cover Photo: http://www.wildaid.org/news/plastic-pollution-problem-our-oceans (Machalilla National Park).