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The plasticisation of the sea

John Paul Cauchi • With 7.3 billion people on the planet, fast rising to nine billion, we treat the ocean as a garbage dump at our peril

4 August 2016, 10:17am
Turtles often confuse clear plastic bags with jellyfish and ingest them, choking to death in the process
Turtles often confuse clear plastic bags with jellyfish and ingest them, choking to death in the process
It so happens that during these hot, sweltering days we go down for a quick dip into our clear, blue seas, inviting under the shimmering sunlight in the relative quiet of the afternoon. We slowly immerse ourselves into the refreshing waters, entering the marine world while skimming the surface, enjoying the freshness of it all, oozing relaxation…

… until we feel something clingy and papery sticking to our legs. Plastic! Ugh!

All too often, we are greeted by waste on our shores, left by irresponsible sea-goers clearly not giving a hoot about others. Our seas are fast becoming full of plastics and others forms of waste. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one refuse truck’s-worth of plastic is dumped into the sea every minute, and the situation is getting worse. These figures are astounding, and recently it has been estimated that there will be more plastic in the sea by weight than fish by 2050. In recent years, reports have been published on a so-called “great garbage patch” in the Pacific, where all currents eventually lead to, leading to a vast expanse of plastic waste the size of France floating far from human eyes.

The stark statistics go on – despite the growing demand, just 5% of plastics are recycled effectively, while 40% end up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans. Much of the remainder is burned, generating energy, but causing more fossil fuels to be consumed in order to make new plastic bags, cups, tubs and consumer devices demanded by the economy. In Malta, 2012 EU data shows that Malta only recycles around 15% of its plastic – the rest is dumped in landfills or shipped abroad.

In the past, we often thought of the sea as a great, vast expanse that would just dissolve any dumped waste into nothing. However, this is far from the truth. With 7.3 billion people on the planet, fast rising to nine billion in the coming decades, we treat the ocean as a garbage dump at our peril.

Plastics in our seas have an impact far beyond mere nuisance. Sea fauna are being devastated by plastics – recent whale autopsies have found whales starved, their stomachs full of plastic. In the remote Midway atoll in the Pacific, birds have been found dead with plastics – from cigarette lighters to nylon strings – in their stomachs. Turtles often confuse clear plastic bags with jellyfish and ingest them, choking to death in the process. Hence the jellyfish swarms increasing in our oceans. 

Plastics DO dissolve in the sea, on timescales from days to centuries (depending on the plastic type) and turn into invisible microplastics that are then ingested by fish that end up on our plate. Indeed, we treat the ocean as a dump at our own cost, especially since some plastics are known to have negative health impacts on humans, especially children.

In the meantime, one might ask – what can I do in face of this crisis? As is often the case the things we need to do are quite simple really. Avoid buying products that are heavy on packaging, which is quite a nuisance at the end of the day. Go shopping with a bag at hand, without getting new plastic bags from the store. Additionally, throw rubbish in the bin, do not leave it lying about. Lastly, for the more environmentally conscious among us, when you see plastic lying about or floating in the sea, pick it up and throw it in the bin. It won’t harm you, but it might well save lives in the long term, animals and humans alike!

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