Friday, 18 January 2019

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There is no “away” for plastic

Situation as it is

For a long time, many people thought that marine litter consists of a few pieces of rubbish scattered along the shoreline of beaches, which would be of no –or very little - harm to anyone, as it would eventually break down as nature ran its course.

Unfortunately, we had it all wrong.

Many plastics do not wear down at all - they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces. They end up in small fish, which end up in bigger fish – and eventually, in us. Marine debris has become a pervasive pollution problem, which today affects all of the world’s oceans.

The magnitude of this problem is so immense that many speak of new continents – continents made of plastic waste in the form of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics.
Today, for instance, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or North Pacific Trash Vortex, is an area the size of Texas. For many people, the idea of a “garbage patch” conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are usually made up of microplastics , which can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Satellite imagery of oceans doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage – instead, we are talking about an estimated six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton, along with other slowly degrading garbage, swirling around like a clock, choked with dead fish, marine mammals, and birds that get snared.

Since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. And it’s not the only garbage patch out in the oceans – there are five of them. The North Atlantic garbage patch, discovered as recently as 1972, is estimated to be hundreds of kilometres across,[with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometre. The debris zone shifts by as much as 1,600 km north and south seasonally. Not only is the surface of the oceans affected – the seabed, especially near to coastal regions, is contaminated as well – predominantly with plastic bags. Plastic is also ubiquitous on beaches everywhere from populous regions to the shores of very remote uninhabited islands. 

Plastic bags are swept out to sea and often end up being ingested by marine animals and birds – and the consequences are sometimes fatal for whales, seals and gulls as well as many varieties of endangered turtles. In the North Sea, the stomachs of 94% of all birds contain plastic. At the other end of Europe, plastic bags accounted for 73% of the plastic waste collected by trawlers along the coast of Tuscany.
Slowly – although too slowly, according to many environmentalists – the world is realizing the magnitude of the problem and its implications for the food chain. It’s time to clean up.

So where does it all come from?

It has been estimated that around 80% of marine debris is from land-based sources and
the remaining 20% is from ocean based sources. The sources can be categorised into four
major groups:

• Tourism related litter at the coast: this includes litter left by beach goers such
as food and beverage packaging, cigarettes and plastic beach toys.

• Sewage-related debris: this includes water from storm drains and combined sewer
overflows which discharge waste water directly into the sea or rivers during heavy
rainfall. These waste waters carry with them garbage such as street litter,
condoms and syringes.

• Fishing related debris: this includes fishing lines and nets, fishing pots and
strapping bands from bait boxes that are lost accidentally by commercial fishing
boats or are deliberately dumped into the ocean.

• Waste from ships and boats: this includes garbage which is accidentally or
deliberately dumped overboard

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