Consequences and Solutions to “Continents” of Plastic waste in the Oceans

The oceans are now invaded by mainly plastic waste, which is concentrated by ocean currents. They are causing an environmental disaster for marine ecosystems, but also for our health as a consumer of marine products and finally economic as estimated by the United Nations Environment Program.

A significant and unquantifiable amount of plastic waste enters the sea through waste, poorly managed landfills, tourist activities and fishing. Some of these materials sink to the bottom of the ocean, while others float on the surface and can travel great distances via ocean currents: they then strand on the coasts and accumulate in the famous ocean gyres.The eleventh edition of the United Nations Environment  Program (UNEP) directory examined ten new issues highlighted in previous reports over the last decade, including plastic waste in the oceans

According to the Valuing Plastic report, supported by UNEP and produced by Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) and Trucost, marine pollution would cost at least $ 13 billion a year, the lowest downstream cost. important in the management of plastics.

“Plastic undoubtedly plays a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of how we use it can not be ignored,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. “These reports show that reducing, recycling and re-conceptualizing plastic products can bring several environmental benefits: reducing economic damage to marine ecosystems, tourism and fishing – vital for many countries” developing – bringing savings and opportunities for business innovation while reducing risk. “

The consequences of macro-plastic waste

The largest plastic waste (macro-waste) causes death or causes injury and illness when ingested by marine animals such as turtles. Cetaceans (such as dolphins and whales) can strangle with, or die when their stomachs are obstructed, as evidenced by this sad strandings of whales in the Netherlands . Not to mention all the damage they cause on the shores, landscapes and coral reefs of which three-quarters are already threatened with extinction.

Finally, this type of plastic waste generates economic costs for the fishing and tourism industries in several countries. This damage is caused for example by the fouling of the fishing equipment and the pollution of the beaches.

The consequences of micro-plastic waste

Since 2011, when the latest analysis of the UNEP Plastic Waste Directory has been completed, there has been growing concern about microplastics (particles larger than 5 mm in diameter, either made from or resulting from plastic fragmentation). Indeed, these micro-wastes are largely ingested by marine organisms, such as seabirds, fish, mussels, worms and zooplankton. 

However, these micro-plastics contain or promote the adsorption of persistent and toxic chemical compounds. As a result, the plastic particles ingested by marine organisms introduce toxins into the food chain, which we then find on our plates. 

Thus, in several places in the North Atlantic, it has been discovered that communities of microbes have developed because of microplastics. This “plastisphere” can facilitate the transport of harmful microbes, pathogens and seaweed species. Finally, microplastics have also been identified as a threat to larger organisms, such as the endangered whale in the North. 

One of the emerging issues is the increasing use of microplastics in consumer products, such as ‘microbeads’ in toothpastes, gels and facial cleansers, the directory said. These microplastics tend not to be filtered during wastewater treatment, but are discharged directly into the ocean, lakes and rivers.  

What are the solutions to plastic waste? 

Unfortunately, the spread of plastic waste in most marine ecosystems has become a global concern that has not yet been satisfactorily addressed. 

The Ocean Cleanup project: A Solution?

Boyan Slat, a 20-year-old Dutch student who presented in October 2012, a concept of a ship equipped with floating dams that could filter waste in the ocean, is often spoken in the media and social media . Dozens of engineers are working on a prototype that would let plankton through and block microplastics.  

If it is a laudable first answer, it remains limited to the macro-waste that enters the oceans, before they reach the gyres: “However, it is not a solution for the plastic already accumulated in the gyres” specifies the website of the project. Patrick Deixonne, who led the “7th continent” expedition , also said in a statement: “Ultraviolet light weakens the polymer chains until they break into microparticles saturated with toxic chemicals. These micro-particles are the main problem of this pollution, sometimes smaller than plankton, invisible to the naked eye, swallowed by fish, it is the heart of the problem related to this pollution. floating plastic is a real platform of life, the method of separation of plastic with life will not be without consequences.” 

The plastic waste will not go all alone in the jaws of a pickup machine, in large marine vortices, there are also mini tourbillons rotating opposite the principal. Depressions cross the oceanic areas with extreme violence. We observed it during our stay in the middle of the Atlantic, torrents of water, storms, nothing is simple in this environment. The ocean is indomitable and very few materials resist it. To leave a machine autonomous for years in the marine environment seems utopian. All sailors will tell you, the sea is destructive, nothing resists it, not even oil rigs that are under surveillance 24h and maintained properly. 

The constraints of cleaning the “continents” of waste are so important that we are therefore skeptical about the effectiveness of this type of project .

Once again, we must beware of the miracle of technology to clean the oceans of our irresponsible way of life. Unfortunately, the current pollution seems destined to continue for centuries.

Today, there is no human scale solution, however, we can always mobilize to avoid aggravating the situation.

Citizen engagement

Several actors can mobilize to stop this unsustainable pollution. In particular, the Valuing Plastic report recommends that manufacturers:

  • to monitor their use of plastic and publish the results in annual reports.
  • Commit to reducing the environmental impact of plastic through clear goals and deadlines, and innovate to increase resource efficiency and recycling.

For the consumer, the solution is common sense through a series of eco-citizen gestures.

  • Upstream, through our purchases, we influence the market and we contribute to our society of overconsumption. Every purchase, no matter how innocuous, needs to be thought through: “Do I really need it?”, “Could it not be loaned elsewhere?”, “Could I find a second hand at a very low price? “.
  • Downstream, we must be particularly vigilant with regard to our waste: put it in the garbage and sort it, whatever the environment in which we find ourselves.

Unfortunately, production trends, usage patterns and demographic shifts are expected to lead to increased use of plastic, and both UNEP reports call on businesses, institutions and consumers to reduce their waste. In fact, without a drastic change in our consumption, this marine pollution is expected to increase considerably.

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Author: Natalie Blake is an environmentalist and a follower of the zero-waste lifestyle. She is a contributor at Borderless News and Views and talks about eco-friendly alternatives that homeowners can use for their houses. Follow Natalie at Bamboo Hearts or get in touch with her at natalieb@bamboohearts.com.

Image source: NOAA.gov