“Although man’s record as a steward of the natural resources of the earth has been a discouraging one, there has long been a certain comfort in the belief that the sea, at least, was inviolate, beyond man’s ability to change and to despoil. But this belief, unfortunately, has been proved to be naïve.”
– Rachel Carson
“Plastic is a positive thing. We just need to learn how to value it and use it appropriately.”
– Lucy Woodall
Plastic is versatile, durable and useful. It has revolutionised things and since it’s development has been put to hundreds of uses. It is useful, convenient and even life saving. But it’s durability means it poses great threats to life on earth. It is practically indestructible which means that it breaks up into tiny pieces so even though you can’t see it, it’s still there. These are known as microplastics, pieces of plastic which are less than 5mm long.
The ocean is filled with plastic, from the surface right down to the sea bed. Grains of plastic nestle amongst grains of sand on the beaches we stroll on and a plastic raft more than 965,000 square miles can be found in the South Pacific.
This isn’t a problem that we can try and blame on any other species. It is not an issue that can be up for debate. The plastic in the oceans is entirely down to humans. Perhaps in the past we can blame lack of knowledge, a sense that the deep sea was barren and unchangeable. We can even go with out of sight out of mind arguments but today we have no such excuse. We can see the plastic in the ocean, with naked eyes and with microscopes. We can see the golf balls inside the stomachs of dead birds, the plastic bags in the digestive systems of turtles. We have no excuse.
There are two aspects of this issue. One is dealing with the plastic that is already in the ocean and the other is about prevention. Despite our knowledge, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic are being added each year. This joins the 5 trillion or so pieces of plastic in the ocean worldwide.
When we’re thinking about rubbish in the ocean it can be hard to get a sense of timescales:
A simple apple cores take 2 months to decompose, Styrofoam cups and tin cans take about years. Disposable nappies and plastic bottles take 450 or so years and fishing lines can take 600 years.
This means, if you take a glug of water from a plastic bottle and it ends up in the sea, it’ll still be around when your great great great…*. great grandchild are born.
*it’s a long time, about 20 or so greats.
73% of deep sea fish have microplastic in their gut. These fish, deep in the ocean are far away from our shores and almost certainly haven’t ever come across a human and yet even they can’t escape our reach.
Ways to reduce plastic
- Swap plastic bottles for reusable ones eg contingo autoseal bottle (I love mine, and have had it years, taken it to the other side of the world and so far it hasn’t leaked)
- Swap one use coffee cups for flasks eg contingo autoseal flask (no, I’m not on commission!)
- Use cloth bags instead of carrier bags
- Instead of balloons, make homemade decorations
- Switch disposable lighters with matches or refillable lighters
- Consider your use of straws – This is under a bit of controversy at the moment as there is a movement to ban straws in restaurants in the uk and I don’t agree with that. Some of us need straws in order to be able to drink but there are better ways of using straws. If possible, investing in re-usable straws such as plastic (but reusable), bamboo and metal straws. But cleaning them can be a problem for some disabled people.
I’ve linked to products I use regularly except for the bamboo straws which I’ve not yet tried.
Think about pens, glitter, toothbrushes, razors… the wrapping on fruit and veg… and built in obsolescence, a particular bug bear of mine…
As we’ve seen with straws, reducing plastic use isn’t necessarily straightforward. For example packaging on fruit and veg can reduce food waste, plastic bottles are cheaper to make and use less fuel to make them than glass bottles. There are numerous medical uses for plastic including my PEG without which I can’t get nutrition. It is not as simple as saying don’t use plastic, but I do think we should all think about our plastic use.
In addition to plastics, we have also filled our oceans with chemical pollutants such as DDT and PCBs. These have entered the water cycle through rivers, through run off from fields and through industrial waste and are banned by a lot of countries. Despite this, they are still used in some parts of the world. Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and by products may be very useful to businesses and have their benefits but as they enter the sea, they build up, accumulating at toxic levels.
PCBs were used as a lubricant in machinery and can be lethal to sea animals. Non-lethal effects include miscarriages, low fertility and problems with immune systems. Deformities and abnormal behaviour are other ways PCBs affect our wildlife.
DDT was a pesticide well known for the impact it had on bird life. It accumulated in the fatty tissue of birds (who ate the fish affected by it) and it disrupted reproduction and egg shell formation.
These two chemical pollutants are ones which have had a lot of publicity, awareness and research centred around them but are just the top of a very toxic iceberg.
“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arise, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
– Rachel Carson