Plastic production is on the rise and a significant percentage of it is finding its way into our oceans each year. Currently, around 300 million tons of new plastic products are produced each year, and an estimated eight million tons of this ends up polluting the ocean. To commemorate Plastic-Free July 2021, AZoCleantech takes a look at the extent of plastic pollution and a recent development aimed to reduce the damage to our planet.
Plastic pollution in rivers is a serious threat to the environment. Image Credit: Nenad Nedomacki/Shutterstock.com
The main source of ocean pollution is the world’s rivers. Roughly 80% of the oceans’ plastic pollution is thought to originate in around 1,000 rivers worldwide. Certain rivers account for most of this pollution, with a 2017 study identifying 10 rivers (including the Nile, the Yellow River, and the Ganges) as accounting for 88-95% of river-originated plastic waste.
Plastic pollution in our oceans is increasing yearly as more plastic is produced and discarded. It is predicted that by 2050 the ocean will sadly contain more plastic than fish. To tackle this issue, scientists have innovated a strategy to educate the public on the impact of polluting rivers, highlighting that much river pollution ends up in the ocean.
Majority of Ocean’s Plastic Pollution Enters through Rivers
Almost all the plastic that contaminates the oceans makes its journey there via the many rivers of the world. Trash that enters our river systems often ends up in the sea, with the river picking up more and more pollution as it flows out to sea. Once plastic arrives in the ocean, it is difficult to remove and is picked up by currents and transported worldwide.
One study showed that plastic items have washed up on a remote, uninhabited island located between Chile and New Zealand. The plastic originated in Russia, the United States, Europe, South America, Japan, and China.
Rivers, therefore, present an opportunity to prevent future plastic pollution in the ocean. While plastic is difficult to remove from the ocean, it is easier to pick up plastic pollution from rivers. Strategies that focus on cleaning plastic from rivers have a huge potential to reduce the amount of plastic that enters our oceans.
The Threat of Microplastics
Once in the sea, plastic pollution is broken down by the water, wind, sunlight, and waves. Plastic never fully degrades and is broken down into smaller and smaller particles and eventually into microparticles known as microplastics. These tiny particles present numerous problems to the environment and human health. This is a major concern given that microplastics have been found in water worldwide, even in the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough in the ocean.
Microplastics have been found in municipal drinking water systems and even drifting through the air. These are entering the human body and wreaking havoc. Studies have linked exposure to microplastics with serious diseases, including numerous cancers, cardiovascular disease, and reproductive disorders. Plastics contain heavy metals that are also known to be dangerous to human health. As they degrade, they release these elements into the water and can find their way into the human body via the food chain or water supply.
Scientists have proven that microplastics can build up in the human body, with a 2020 study revealing that microplastics had infiltrated every kind of bodily tissue tested in the experiment, including the lung, liver, spleen, and kidney. Other recent research suggests that people consume (eat or breathe in) at least 50,000 microplastic particles each year.
In addition to the significant threat to human health, microplastics contribute to climate change - as the sun heats the plastic in the ocean, it causes it to release greenhouse gases.
Therefore, reducing the amount of plastic entering our oceans is vital to protecting human health and tackling climate change.
How 1% of the World's Rivers Emit 80% of the Pollution to Our Oceans | Research | The Ocean Cleanup
Video Credit: The Ocean Cleanup/YouTube.com
Boat Made from Recycled Plastic Removes Plastic from Rivers
Scientists have been working on solutions to prevent plastic pollution from entering the ocean by removing it from the main source - the world’s rivers. One such solution being implemented in the UK is to educate the public about the impact of plastic pollution. Recently, one project produced a boat from recycled plastic which was then used to collect plastic from Bristol’s harbor.
The project intended to teach the local community about the impact of litter. On organized plastic fishing trips, the Seacycler, a punt boat constructed of 99% plaswood (a polymer material made from recycled single-use plastic), organizers and locals help to remove plastic from the local rivers. In doing so, the people of the community learn how litter can impact their harbor and ultimately the ocean.
Projects such as the Seacycler project may help to reduce the amount of plastic pollution that enters rivers. The plastic retrieved from trips with the Seacycler will be used to create more boats for similar projects. A similar intervention was conducted with the Seacycler along the Basque coast, where it was used to collect plastic that instead of being turned into boats, was recycled into technological fabric to create technical garments.
References and Further Reading
Campanale, Massarelli, Savino, Locaputo and Uricchio, 2020. A Detailed Review Study on Potential Effects of Microplastics and Additives of Concern on Human Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(4), p.1212. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7068600/
Microplastic particles now discoverable in human organs. Damian Carrington. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/17/microplastic-particles-discovered-in-human-organs
Recycled plastic boat goes on plastic trawl in Bristol harbour. BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-57805053
The world's plastic pollution crisis explained. Laura Parker. The National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-pollution