My name is Sarah Roberts, I’m a naturalist from the UK – for those of you who are unsure, that means I work with wildlife (I don’t make a habit of walking around naked!). Over the last 5 years, I’ve worked with lots of different species from Sharks to Grizzly Bears and have lived in loads of random locations from tiny tropical islands to mountainous rainforests. Though working in the conservation industry is an absolute dream (most of the time), it does carry with it quite a substantial amount of responsibility in the form of knowledge…
So aside from travelling around the world to film and work, I’ve also spent a decent amount of time visiting education institutes around the UK and abroad. I’ve conducted workshops with children, adults, students, and teachers as part of my outreach project. And one huge thing that has become very apparent, ever since I first started doing this, is how very little we really like to talk about environmental issues!
They say ignorance is bliss and for a while, they may be right, but when you are dealing with catastrophic environmental events which only we have the power to do anything about, then ignorance is actually a complete nightmare.
So what floats in the ocean, smells like fish, but tastes deadly?
Did anyone get it? No, I’m actually referring to marine plastic. This indestructible material, that we’ve become all to used to discarding, is currently reeking havoc on our planet, yet many people are still completely unaware that it’s such a problem…
Did you know that 5.25 trillion tonnes of plastic pieces are currently swirling around in the abyss of our oceans? That is enough cumulative plastic to circle our planet over four hundred times! Considering that the vast majority of this sinks, there is still enough floating pieces to cover around 40% of Earth’s marine surface area. Already over 600 species are affected by marine plastic pollution, think dolphins, turtles, sharks and all your favourite characters from The Little Mermaid. Nearly every seabird on the planet is carrying plastic around in its gut and according to studies, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish?!
So what does this mean for us?
Well, considering our lives are dependant on the health of the ocean, it’s not good news I’m afraid. Please resist the urge to turn off your screen and look away, as this next bit may get a little bit scary…
- Items such as fishing nets, plastic bags, bottle lids, beer can holders etc are horrifically hazardous to marine creatures who are very prone to get entangled in it or eat it. Yes I said EAT IT! You may wonder why this would happen, since plastic doesn’t really resemble food to most of us, however, it can be found in the same place as fish and the algae that colonise it release pongy sulphur products that seabirds and marine life associate with their prey.
- Plastic can’t biodegrade like natural materials, instead it photo-degrades. This basically means it requires direct sunlight and it takes a shed load of time (anywhere from 20- 1000 years dependant on the object) to break down. This is bad news for the pieces that sink to the ocean floor. As for the floating pieces, when they do get the opportunity to break down, they will break into smaller and smaller particles releasing harmful chemicals into the ocean at the same time. These pieces, otherwise known as microplastics, now have an even larger surface area. I’m telling you this because of point three…
- Marine plastic bonds really well with toxic chemicals and heavy metals (think lead, mercury and PCB’s). Basically, those other dangerous things we dumped in the Ocean to dispose of out of sight have now bonded together with plastic. We have managed to create one big floating soup of plankton and poison and our fish and birds are eating it.
- You may, for some reason, not care about the 600 different species that are affected by this, however here’s the catch. This toxicity does not stop at the level of fish. It bio accumulates up the food chain and there is already evidence of it reaching right back to the original source – Us.
What is being done?
As humans, we are very quick to pass the buck. We often look at governments, corporations and people in power to fix the problem- yes that 5p plastic bag charge didn’t just come around to tax your hard earned coin. However, a lot needs to be done. Though many countries have basic recycling systems already in place and some are leaning on corporations to ban plastic bags/containers altogether, as consumers, we have to play our part too.
At this point in time, it would be incredibly difficult to go completely plastic free, but please do try it if you’re keen for a challenge! Due to sell-by dates, health and safety risks, general packaging necessitation and the fact that ultimately this is one of biggest materials ever to be maufactured in such bulk outside of the iron industry, our options are fairly limited. However, there are some easy measures we can all take right now to make a dent in the problem…
What can WE do about Plastic Pollution?
1. Just give it up!
Or at least anything that isn’t completely necessary anyway. This includes single-use throwaway items or objects that can’t be recycled, such as plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic cutlery and plastic straws. If you need a little bit of extra motivation on this front, go on youtube and search for ‘turtle and straw’ – that’s usually enough to stop most people sucking.
2. Avoid micro beads
Many countries are already banning products with micro beads in them, as usual England is a little bit behind (though Britain has proposed a strong legislative policy, it will not include makeup and sunscreen yet). Plastic micro beads can be found in soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste, and moisturizers etc and enter the ocean through our water treatment systems.
3. Consider your next wardrobe selections carefully.
One of the most recent and perhaps the most intimidating forms of plastic pollution to date is that which is made up of the small fibers in clothing. Think polyester (anything ‘poly’ uses synthetic plastics). When these clothes are washed, they shed small fibers which end up in the plastic soup layer of the ocean. ( On average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7g of micro fibers per wash see here for more details) Perhaps the scariest part about this is the fact that we have been recycling oceanic plastics, thinking we were doing a good thing for the environment by turning them into clothing, which then ultimately end up back in the ocean. In this form they become completely toxic, are then readily ingested by plankton and juvenile fish and almost impossible to remove from the ocean.
4. Pick it up!
Simple but effective. You can go as far as you like with this, from being a humble hero and picking up pieces as you go, to arranging entire beach clean events or becoming a rep for Surfers Against Sewage.
5. Join a movement!
There are many great campaigns designed to push authorities into making bigger changes. I am absolutely thrilled to be an Ambassador and founding citizen of the Trash Isles, a campaign fronted by Lad’s Bible in partnership with the Plastic Oceans Foundation. Check it out!! They have declared a giant floating area of marine plastic as a country and are asking people to become citizens to help make it official. This is particularly clever, as once it’s formally classed as a country it might be able to be part of the UN. Due to UN charters, they would then be bound to ‘conserve, protect and restore’ environmental health to it, i.e. the UN would be obliged to help clean it up!
6. Educate others…
Pass on this knowledge and end the willful ignorance cycle. There’s actually a really great book out there called ‘Somebody Swallowed Stanley’, which educates on this matter, haha OK so that was a completely shameless plug, but you can check it out here or on my website if you are interested in getting your local school and the whole family involved! #somebodyswallowedstanley
Credit: Sergi Garcia for Turtle image https://www.sgfoto.eu/