The ocean is nature's number one influencer but thanks to plastic, its health is in freefall
In writing about the pressure we humans put on this beautiful planet, I come across many tragic concepts that crystallise this unequal and potentially catastrophic relationship. One of the most tragic I’ve discovered is that of the shifting baseline.
Each generation has a mental image of a baseline of how the environment around them looked in their youth; a sort of cognitive touchstone. In our minds, we compare any change in our environment and our lives to this baseline. Younger generations therefore accept as normal a world that, to older generations, seems tainted and degraded. Over the passage of time, this phenomenon means that we fail to notice when we lose important habitats and species are in freefall.
It’s no surprise that the phrase was adopted to describe the declining health of our oceans by marine conservation professor Callum Roberts, of the UK’s University of York. In common with many ocean scientists and lovers of the Big Blue, he felt an urgent need to push back against “social amnesia”. We cannot accept a degraded ocean. It must not become normalised.
The star of a billion holiday brochures, the ocean is nature’s number one influencer. It can be hard to acknowledge that under the surface its health is in freefall. But ocean plastic is the breakthrough issue.
Only last week, a young whale washed up dead on the shores of Davao City in the Philippines after swallowing a staggering 40 kilograms of plastic, which, according to the biologists who conducted an autopsy, was “the most amount of plastic we have ever seen in a whale”. Last year, a whale died in Thai waters after ingesting 80 plastic bags. Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II is thought to be one of the most-watched television programmes ever. Just 15 minutes of the epic natural history show actually focuses on the scourge of plastics in the ocean. But seeing the heart-wrenching footage that connects an infant whale death to the ingestion of plastic was enough. In countries where the show aired, huge segments of the population asked themselves: “What on earth are we doing to our oceans?”
This month’s World Ocean Summit in Abu Dhabi heard that the scourge of plastic pollution is far from the only issue affecting ocean health. Stress is exerted by everything from fishing and excavation to ocean heatwaves that cause the underwater equivalent of forest fires. But plastic can be seen as the (synthetic) straw that broke the camel’s back.
Since the 1950s – when plastic became a commercial reality – 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been created and used. It has quickly dominated our supply chains, particularly where groceries are concerned. It has been called the “skin of commerce”, a moniker that aptly describes how polymers swathe everything from soap and fish steaks to coconuts (which come in their own robust, fibrous shell, rendering plastic unnecessary).
The cost has been high. Incredibly 79 per cent of all of that plastic is still with us on the planet, in the form of pollution. This is shocking but unsurprising. The material we have become dependent on takes monomers from oil and uses chemistry to convert them into polymers – long chemical chains that are tough and very hard to break down. But the same qualities that made plastic beloved and have enabled stuff like transatlantic communications and space travel have proven to be a nightmare, especially transposed into everyday, consumer society. Plastic is almost impossible to throw away. There is no “away”. It is engineered to last for hundreds of years. Then there’s the volume, in almost every country on earth, from Somaliland to hotspots of consumerism like the UK; plastic waste overwhelms efforts to collect it.
Every year we add to this problem. This year the world will produce more than 320 million tonnes of new plastic from virgin oil. Around 12 million tonnes will end up in the ocean, adding to existing deposits. An entire plastic bag has been shown drifting around the Mariana Trench – the deepest trench in all the seas. Meanwhile gruesome deposits of plastic are held in the bellies of dead seabirds and whales and in our own bodies as plastics enter the food chain, beginning with microscopic organisms like zooplankton.
But the most spectacular concentration of plastic is found in gyres, circulating ocean currents which occur when airflows move from the tropics to polar regions, creating a clockwise, rotating air mass, driving oceanic surface currents in the same direction. Once the detritus of our plastic-dominated lives enters ocean currents, buoyant plastic settles in islands of trash that float just above the surface. It is here that the plastic debris of our throwaway lives becomes dramatically visible.
There are now 51 trillion fragments in the oceans. This gives rise to the extraordinary warning that by 2050 – unless we take radical action – there will be more pieces of plastic in the ocean than fish
Of all the plastic at sea, the concentration in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most fabled and possibly the most dense soup of plastic. The patch has been known about for decades but has grown at a shocking rate. Research published last year in the scientific journal Nature, based on the most detailed trawl of the area, found that it was 16 times bigger than previously thought, and stretched across 600,000 square miles of ocean, containing 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish, 99.9 per cent of which are plastic. The oldest item from the patch was found to be 40 years old.
Most problems become easier when they are made smaller. Plastic proves the opposite can be true. Plastic does degrade – just at a very slow rate. In the oceans, large pieces of plastic are pummelled by waves and abrasion and beaten by the sun until they break up. Macroplastics become microplastics. It is estimated that there are now 51 trillion fragments in the oceans. This gives rise to the extraordinary warning that by 2050 – unless we take radical action – there will be more pieces of plastic in the ocean than fish. That threat is very real.
So here’s the good news. Because we are now so alert to the fact that everyday plastics – from fishing nets to drinking straws – are choking our oceans, we have an opportunity to turn the tide.
How? I maintain that this battle starts on the homefront. We each allow far too much plastic into our lives. It is not entirely our fault; after all, everything comes wrapped in plastic. But we must stop the tsunami into our own lives. There are a series of easy-to-implement strategies to halve your plastic footprint, then shrink it to a quarter. If just 12 people adopt the strategies detailed in my book, up to 15,000 single-use could be removed from the equation.
Only after we stem the outrageous flow of plastics into our lives can we become architects of global change. Increasingly, people are coming together to fight these issues in a way never before seen. Global action has been mobilised and in many cases, it begins on the beaches. Beach cleans are the engine of global change.
The world’s largest and longest-running volunteer operation is thought to be at Versova beach, a 2.4-kilometre strip of coastline facing the Arabian Sea in western Mumbai. Begun by a local lawyer and ocean-lover, Afroz Shah, volunteers have hand-collected an astonishing 13 million kilograms of plastic rubbish in three years. Recently 80 hatchling turtles of a vulnerable species were spotted on the beach for the first time in decades.
When we look at the many threats to the oceans and ocean species, the issue can seem overwhelming. Following the World Ocean Summit, experts and decision-makers must show real leadership. We urgently need protected marine zones to give parts of the ocean an opportunity to recover, but we also need to curb the volume of plastic generated globally each year. Unless experts join the dots to our consumption of plastic (much of it unwanted), and pressure policymakers to act accordingly, we will always be set up to fail.
Ordinary citizens feel so strongly about the plastic pandemic that failure is not an option any longer. Plastic is a huge problem but there is a big appetite for change. We are the first generation to understand the magnitude of the plastic crisis. Now we must be the last generation to put up with it.
Lucy Siegle is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (and You) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again, published by Trapeze/Orion
Updated: March 19, 2019 02:34 PM