How are contaminants reaching the ocean?
We often see harrowing images circulating through the media: a picture of a beach whale whose stomach is filled with plastic bags, or of sea turtles whose necks are wrapped in plastic rings of soda cans. But how do our contaminants get into the ocean?
The plastic straws, bottles, and cups that we see littering our beaches every day are just the tip of the iceberg: they make up a small fraction of what actually enters our oceans every year. At the higher end, scientists estimate that 12.8 million metric tons of plastic are presently floating in our oceans.
There are three main ways in which plastics reach our oceans: #1 Windbound Plastics Plastics, flooding our landfills, blow away by wind and join nearby water bodies or escape by storm drains. Plastics such as LDPE, like plastic bags, are light, buoyant and can be easily picked up by the wind. However, once they hit water, they are easily sunk because of their large surface area. Find out the path from the street litter to the ocean-bound plastic bag.
#2 Direct Littering or Dumping
across the globe, dumping garbage and littering into oceans, riverbeds, and beaches is still a very common practice. In fact, scientists have studied the route of our waste from the water to the open ocean and found that only 10 river systems hold 90% of the plastics that end up in the ocean. Eight of them are in Asia: the Yangtze; the Indus; the Yellow; the Hai He; the Ganges; the Pearl; the Amur; the Mekong; and two in Africa: the Nile and the Niger. Garbage reaches these systems due to the lack of structured waste management systems in these areas or the direct / indirect disposal of waste into the bodies of water.
#3 Urban wastewater discharges microplastics and fibers into the environment.
Nowadays, many of our goods, from microbeads in our toothpastes to synthetic fibers in our clothing, are washed down the drain. Microplastics and fibers are too small for many water communities to be identified and collected, which ensures that they slip through treatment centers and flow directly into seas, rivers and lakes. Microplastics are also found upstream of treatment plants due to agricultural runoff. Such plastics are created from urban sewage sludge applied to agricultural land as fertilizer; thus, microplastics from our sewage impact all parts of the river system and then spill into our oceans.
Plastic effect on the environment
Once plastic reaches our ocean, it poses a major threat to marine life as it can take more than 400 years to disintegrate. Over time, plastic waste breaks down through photodegradation into microplastics, plastic parts of less than 5 millimeters in size. Such microplastics are then eaten at the lower levels of the food chain by plankton and larvae, as well as by fish and crustaceans, and pass up the food chain. The build-up of these plastics in sea turtles, sharks, whales and fish was directly linked to endocrine disruption, inhibition of hatching, and decreased growth rates. Bioaccumulation of microplastics exists not only within the oceanic food chain, but also in humans. As we eat fish or crustaceans, we are unknowingly ingesting the contaminants with which we pollute the oceans.
Rethinking solutions to the problem of ocean plastic pollution
How can we stop plastics from entering our oceans? Massive river and beach cleaning campaigns have begun around the world. According to CNN, the UN called the restoration of Versova Beach in Mumbai "the largest beach clean-up project in the world" and collected nearly 11,7 million pounds of trash from an approximately 1,5-mile stretch of beach. The project was led by local promoters and volunteers and saw the community come together to get the beach back to its former pristine condition. Last year, in June, the United Nations World Environmental Day focused on solving the issue of plastic pollution, encouraging beach cleaning around the world.
So if we really want to create long-term solutions to solve the world's plastic waste epidemic, we need to shift how we think about our plastic waste footprint. Beach cleaning has proven to be effective, bringing people together around a common cause to save our world. But clean-ups are only doing so much. We continue the linear progression of the mass consumption of plastics into the mass production of plastic waste. If we are to create sustainable solutions for the future, we need not only to minimize our generation of plastic waste, but also to reduce or avoid our use of plastics altogether.
Progress made so far and progress anticipated
Countries and companies around the world are already taking steps to achieve this goal. In 2018, Mumbai, India's largest city, introduced a ban on single-use plastics, with notable exceptions for trash bags, containers and retail packaging. According to the Huffington Post, all of India will see a ban on single-use plastics by 2022. This is of particular significance given the enormous amount of plastic waste both produced by India itself and imported by India from other countries around the world.
Starbucks has vowed to stop the use of disposable straws worldwide by 2020 and the BBC states that McDonalds has started to replace plastic straws with more natural paper straws in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Around the world, we see countries and corporations taking steps to reduce or end their production and consumption of single-use plastics. But it will take a more complete and far-reaching effort to truly stop the huge amounts of plastic waste from continuing to enter and pollute our oceans.
Do the best you can to reduce your dependence on plastic and compensate for the rest. Go #PlasticNeutral today and prevent more plastic from entering our oceans and threatening marine life.