Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Plastic pollution in the oceans

Each year more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, that’s 15 tonnes per minute, or in other words, one truck of plastic dumped into the ocean each minute. At this pace, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Only 20% of that plastic comes from activities at sea such as fishing or shipping, while a shocking 80% of those 8 million tonnes comes from activity and industry on dry land.

To keep in mind: all the plastic that has been ever made it is still around. It doesn’t disappear! Due to its long and difficult biodegradation (from few years to several centuries) plastic tends to accumulate in huge patches around the oceans following the oceanic currents. As we can see in the figure below, there are five main convergence areas in the world’s oceans, which are called subtropical gyres. On those regions, plastic and other materials tend to aggregate, forming the Garbage Patches. Azores is within the boundaries of the North Atlantic garbage patch.

Approximate locations of the 5 main garbage patches existing in the Earth's oceans.
Source: 5 Gyre Institute (www.5gyres.org)

Macroplastics (particles of plastic of over 5 mm in size) represent a serious problem for marine fauna: tangle, suffocation, strangulation or malnutrition (after being ingested and block the stomach or intestine of the animal).

Risso’s dolphin in one of our tours with a piece of plastic stuck on its dorsal fin.
Photo: Mariana Silva

However, recently, a special focus has been placed on the microplastics (0,001 mm to 5 mm) and nanoplastics (< 0,001 mm), produced over time by bigger pieces of plastic been broken down into smaller ones or just because they are directly produced with those sizes.

Microplastics present in cosmetics products.
Source: The Times Herald (www.thetimesherald.com)

Micro and nanoplastics can be ingested by marine wildlife, including plankton, crustaceans and fish, and can cause problems, both by their physical presence in the intestine or as a result of the chemical contaminants that they carry. They can even be passed along from the food chain to our plates.

To reduce or even stop pollution by plastic in the oceans it is essential to take measures at the sources of waste, by governments, producers and citizens. Recycling is not enough, we must change our habits of consumption and adapt our legislation to a gradually more plastic-free society.

Here are some easy ideas we can do as consumers right now:

  • Use reusable items instead of disposable ones. Some examples could be grocery bags, cutlery, water bottles or diapers.
  • Cook more, buy less precooked meals that usually come with plastic packaging. It is healthier for you and safer for the environment!
  • Avoid use of cosmetic products with plastic microbeads. The App Beat the Microbead can help you identify whether a certain product has microbead in it.
  • Buy second hand when possible. This allows to prolong the useful life of things and to reduce the costs and pollution involved in the transport and manufacture of said products.
  • Compost organic waste to avoid plastic rubbish bags.
  • Participate (or organize) a beach/river cleaning day.
  • Last but not least, recycle all you can, and recycle correctly.

Written by Iñaki Cabo Ibarzabal

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