A sea of plastic: Helping the oceans from our homes

the great pacific garbage patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

I've had many friends complain about  paper straws turning to mush in our smoothies, but I'm glad the world is finally taking on plastic pollution.

In recent years, movements such as strawless ocean have taken root in society. We are just beginning to account for the harmful effects of plastic on the environment and in our bodies. Meanwhile, these problematic polymers have been plaging the world since the early 40's.

What's the problem with plastic?

The main problem is that plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose. In fact, many of the first plastics ever made are still in existance today, while only 19% of all plastics are recycled. In South Africa over a million tons of recycable plastic end up in landills each year. This is both unnecessary and unsustainable considering that our local landfills are nearing full capacity.

But over the last six decades, as the world slowly transformed into a synthetic wonderland, marine environments bear the biggest brunt.  Many of us still fail to see the connection between our lifesyle choices and environmental impact. This is especially true for city dwellers who find it hard to see how our plastic waste winds up in the ocean.

How does plastic end up in the ocean?

About 10 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans each year. One of the main contributors is litter from roads and fields which is carried by wind and rain into drainage systems. This eventually leads to major rivers and into our oceans.

A significant percentage of plastic waste in the oceans also comes from fishing vessels. Materials such as ghost nets become entangled on reefs and marine life.

Illegal dumping into the oceans also occurs across the globe and this is especially difficult to monitor and measure.

ghost nets made of plastic
Ghost nets. Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

plastic accumulates in gyres

Plastic waste from all over the world accumulates in the gyres of the ocean like giant floating islands of debris.

The largest one yet is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is at least 700 000 square miles. That's twice the size of Texas!

What does this mean for marine life?

This widescale plastic contamination of marine ecosystems has disastrous consequences for marine life. Many animals accidentally ingest plastic bags and bits or become entangled among the debris. They eventually starve, suffocate, or develop serious digestive system problems.

Did you know?

To sea turtles, plastic bags resemble jellyfish which is the favourite food of some turtle species.

Research also indicates that sea birds are attracted to the algal smell emitted by plastic debris washed ashore.

sea turtle eating plastic
Image by Troy Mayne / WWF

Global efforts to curb plastic pollution

The Ocean Cleanup

In 2012, young inventor-entrepreneur Boyan Slat embarked upon a non-profit venture called The Ocean Cleanup – an ambitious mission to tackle marine plastic pollution using advanced technology.

the ocean cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup System 001

The device he designed uses a passive floating boom traversing the ocean gyres.

The boom drifts with the wind, waves and ocean currents to capture marine debris through a screen located underneath.

By using natures elements, the system is able to be completely efficient, needing no external energy. This is definitely the future of engineering design.

It has not been an easy journey for Slat as the project has sparked a fair amount of criticism and scientific debate. This wasn't muzzled by the fact that the first two attempts were unsuccessful as the device failed to collect plastic and experienced numerous system failures.

However, as of September 2019, the project had finally seen some success and confirmed that the system is now successfully picking up ocean plastics.

After seven years of hard work and perseverence, this was definitly the glimmer of hope the project needed to push forward in its mission. The aim of The Ocean Cleanup is to collect 50% of the garbage patch in five years and 90% by 2040.

boyan slat sorting plastic waste
Boyan Slat. Image by The Ocean Cleanup
The South African Plastic Pact

Meanwhile back home, the WWF are leading a national initiative which aims to “bring together key stakeholders in the plastics value chain – businesses, governments and NGOs – behind a common vision to address plastic waste and pollution issues.”

The aim of the pact is to "shift market practices to reduce waste and move towards a circular plastic economy." To achieve this the WWF works with national government and other agencies to develop an effective plastic waste management policy.

They also work with other African countries to create a regional approach to addressing plastic pollution.

What’s great is that there is a growing number of brilliant minds worldwide working together to find ways to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment. But individual consumers can make a big difference too. In the grand scheme of things our collective our efforts go a long way.

Consumerism and plastic waste

Vast amounts of all the plastic waste in the world are from single use items like plastic straws, bottles and cutlery. Drinking bottles account for a large percentage of this with one million bottles sold per minute around the globe. This means that by changing our unsustainable habits we can make a major difference to marine life.

plastic straws

Here are 5 simple things we can do to help curb plastic pollution:

Reduce the amount of plastic we use in our daily lives.

We live in a consumer culture where convenience is key. In most cities, we are able to buy items individually or in small quantities as and when we need.

By up-sizing items or buying in bulk we can significantly reduce the amount of packaging materials thereby reducing our overall plastic consumption.  And in doing so we also save money. Also avoid single use items like throw-away cutlery, drinking bottles,  and cups.

plastic cups

Reusables

A far better option is to avoid plastic wherever possible. Switch to more durable materials which are reusable and also better for your health. Most plastic contains bisphenol-A (BPA) and other harmful chemicals known to cause cancer and other serious medical conditions. Sourcing BPA free plastic products that can be safely reused is also a good option.

eco friendly alternatives to plastic

Seek out alternatives to plastic such as stainless steel and bamboo. Eco-friendly products have gained popularity over the last decade as they are trendy and generally of high quality.

recycle plastics

Recycle and use recycled products

Some countries have efficient state-managed suburban recycling systems in place. In South Africa most recycling companies are private, but government backed initiatives are growing. Check out your local recycling options. Remember that not all plastic can be recycled so familiarise yourself with recycling symbols on packaging and the general protocols in your area. Here is a great resource to use.

There are many great products made from recycled plastic. It's become a fantastic alternative to conventional materials like wood in the construction world as it is far more durable and less harmful to the environment.

Support bans and movements

The Strawless Ocean movement has amassed global support. Straws are difficult to recycle and frequently end up in the ocean. Some countries have plastic-bag bans in place. Even if this is not the case for your country, opt for a reusable shopping bag instead.

Styrofoam bans are also sweeping across the world, and for good reason. Not only is Styrofoam, or polystyrene, made of fossil fuels and does not biodegrade, but it is also toxic when it comes into contact with food items.

clean up plastic on beaches

Litter clean-up drives

Arrange a beach, park, or city clean up in your area. This is especially helpful in developing countries where the state systems are not optimal. It may not be glamorous but it can be particularly rewarding and fulfilling. And it definitely makes a difference, especially for sea birds and on beaches where turtles nest.

Marine ecosystems are facing countless threats, from illegal fishing, commercial overfishing, and bycatch destruction, to oil spills and chemical waste disposal. Aside from raising awareness and lobbying there is not much we can do for some of these issues as individuals. But reducing our plastic footprint is a tangible way we can help alleviate some of the pressures on our oceans.

A sea of plastic: Helping the oceans from our homes
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