The war on plastic has been growing in strength over the past few years. The full effects of plastic in the ocean are filtering into the public consciousness and have resulted in environmental movements involving the public, businesses large and small and governments. However, less than a fifth of plastic is recycled, and that which is recycled can only be recycled once.
As plastic can replace most natural materials, and possesses qualities not found in natural materials, it is clear to see why it has become such a popular material for production across all areas of life. Although plastic can be made from organic materials from soybeans and corn to sugar canes, their natural origins don’t guarantee its biodegradability. Unfortunately, plastics from natural sources may still behave like alkenes (unsaturated hydrocarbons also called olefins) and acrylates (the salts, esters and conjugate bases of acrylic acid) and as such, possess similar biodegradation rates as synthetic plastics.
The exact amount of plastic that is dumped in the ocean per year is difficult to ascertain. However, it is estimated that around 18 billion pounds of plastic goes into the ocean from coastal areas every year. 40% of plastic is used in packaging, racking up 161 tons of plastic produced globally. The building and textiles industry also produce 72 and 65 tons of plastic on a global scale respectively.
As the ocean is the largest habitat on the Earth, gathering data on plastic pollution is a significant challenge, with ‘citizen science’ becoming a popular method of acquiring said data, with local observations, experiments, and crowd-sourced data. Producing this data is essential in the fight to develop and back up legislation regulating the use of plastics, for instance, in large corporations. Without solid evidence and data, companies are unlikely to overhaul a so-far profitable production scheme made possible by plastics.
Effects of Plastic in the Ocean
The effects of plastic on ocean and marine life are extensive and devastating. The first reports of plastic in the marine environment started in the 1970s, where the damaging and often toxic effects of plastics in the ocean were discussed in reports at that time. As predicted, the situation has worsened since then.
Without an extensive improvement on the amount of plastic waste in the ocean, we can expect many marine species to either reduce in number dramatically, or go extinct altogether. For example, whales and seabirds have been found starved because their stomachs are too full of plastic to fit in normal food. Entanglement from fishing nets is also a very common problem for all kinds of sea life, from dolphins and seals to turtles, sharks and whales.
Plastic bags have also been reported to be effectively choking the coral reef. For turtles, plastic bags can resemble jellyfish, which make up a considerable part of their diet. As they eat them whole, plastic bags ingested can contain a large amount of air and as such affect a turtle’s ability to dive due to its increased buoyancy. Therefore, the turtle is unable to feed properly and starves.
It is also thought that plastic pollution in the ocean will eventually have real effects on human health and food security.
The Effects of Ocean Plastic and Human Health
Fish that we eat often have fibers or fragments of plastic inside. As the sun, wind and waves break down plastic in the sea, the smaller pieces are ingested by fish that are then farmed and eaten. It has been found that fish who have ingested certain types are less able to process pesticides, which poses concerns about food quality. However, the exact effects of plastic ingestion in humans have not been confirmed, as it comes in so many different forms.
How to Reduce Plastic in the Ocean
Reducing the amount of single-use plastic is a key way to fight the plastic pollution in the ocean. EU parliament voted to ban single-use plastic including plastic cutlery, plates, straws, balloon sticks, and even cotton buds, and is thought to come into effect by 2021. Other measures include charging for plastic bags in shops, which is thought to discourage people from requesting and consequently discarding unnecessary plastic bags. Major companies are also working towards reducing or stopping the amount of plastic waste they produce, as well as trying to collect and dispose of or reuse waste plastic they produce responsibly, before it enters the ocean.