Trashing the oceans: More plastic than fish by 2050

Large swaths of the world’s oceans are filled with floating garbage patches, which wash up on islands and beaches, end up in the stomachs of marine animals, and continue to pile up with harmful plastics. And according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum (WES), much more trash will be floating into the oceans in the coming years, with plastics predicted to outweigh fish, pound for pound, by 2050.

Oceans will be in huge trouble

According to the report, the increasing flow of plastic is positively choking the waters and their life – 90 percent of sea birds have consumed some form of plastic, said a separate study by the National Academy of Sciences. The threat of plastic pollution has been called “global, pervasive, and increasing.” And the oceans will be in huge trouble much sooner than 2050. The WES abstract noted, “We calculate that 275 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons entering the ocean. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.”

Despite this data, and the responsibility on the part of human beings to recycle, the same study also shows that people are doing a terrible job of properly disposing of plastics. Roughly one third of all plastics produced manage to escape collection systems, whereupon they end up in the sea or the stomach of a bird. Basically, that means that about eight million metric tons of the stuff is avoiding proper collection and disposal methods each year. That’s like “five bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” according to Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia, who published a paper on the matter this week in Science. The amount of plastic is “much larger than what they’re currently finding in the water,” she added. “Of course, as you know, they can only count what they find, and they can only find where they look.”

The issue will come back to haunt people

And while it would seem that many a capitalist and climate denier has limited sympathy for the marine life being destroyed by plastic pollution, the issue will come back to haunt people – both economically and health-wise. The damage caused by plastic being washed into waterways costs about $13 billion per year in losses for the tourist, shipping, and fishing industries. And its disruption of marine ecosystems is nothing to shrug off – it severely threatens food security for people who depend on subsistence fishing – especially indigenous people.

In fact, the Indigenous Marine Debris Network released a statement on the matter, remarking, “Proliferation of marine plastic pollution disproportionately threatens indigenous people’s health and environment due to a lack of infrastructure to deal with debris, an erosion of traditional lifeways and cultural sustenance, and a reliance on the world’s oceans as an economic and food resource.”

The area most negatively impacted, according to the National Academy of Sciences’ report, is around the Southern Ocean boundary with the Tasman Sea (a stretch of water that lies between New Zealand and Australia). The authors noted that areas “where high plastic concentration and high seabird diversity coincide” are the most vulnerable. “We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas,” said co-author Erik van Sebille. “While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live there.”

Co-author Denise Hardesty stated that finding plastic in birds’ stomachs is an increasingly common occurrence, and that the kinds of plastic they eat mostly originate in urban rivers and sewers. Consuming these items, especially large pieces of plastic, can be deadly for the animals. “I’ve found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird,” said Hardesty. “I have seen everything from cigarette lighters to bottle caps to model cars.” Still, she added, the problem is a solvable one. “Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine life. Even simple measures can make a difference. Efforts to reduce plastics dumped into the environment in Europe resulted in measurable changes in plastic in seabirds’ stomachs in less than a decade. This suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time.”

Harsh facts about plastic

As noted previously in EcoWatch, here are some harsh facts about plastic that readers need to know:

In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments, like grocery bags, straws, and soda bottles, are carried into the Pacific Ocean each day. And this is a city that has recently banned plastic bags!

Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the Earth four times.

We only recover about five percent of the plastics we produce.

Every year, about 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California and is the largest ocean garbage site in the world. The floating mass of waste is twice the size of Texas, and its plastic pieces outnumber sea life six to one.

Although human beings are the perpetrators of this pollution, they are also the victims: plastic chemicals can be absorbed by the body – and 93 percent of Americans age six or older test positive for BPA, a chemical compound used to create polycarbonate plastic, according to National Geographic. Some of the compounds found in plastic have been found to alter hormones or have other potential health effects on humans.

Here’s how to be a part of the solution

  • Reuse shopping bags, plastic utensils, and water bottles, rather than throwing them away. Bottled water and disposable cups in particular are problematic; water bottles produce 1.5 million tons of plastic waste annually, and the average U.S. office worker uses roughly 500 plastic cups per year.
  • Refuse excess packaging that uses too much plastic, and other disposable plastic items like straws. Opt instead for cardboard or glass containers – and wash out and reuse those!
  • Replace the use of sandwich bags with a reusable lunch bag or box, or a paper bag.
  • Bring a to-go cup to a café or restaurant instead of using the plastic cups there.
  • Download digital-format movies or music, instead of purchasing plastic CDs, DVDs, and jewel cases.
  • Volunteer at a beach cleanup.
  • Support plastic bag bans like those in LA and Olympia, Washington. A single plastic bag, after all, can take 1,000 years to completely degrade. As far as shopping is concerned, reusable bags are the answer, though paper bags can also be used. And if you’re choosing the reusable option, avoid bags made from nylon or polyester because those are also made from plastic.
  • Inform friends and family about the dangers and nasty impact of plastic pollution.
  • And finally, recycle!

 Photo: Birds like this unsuspecting seagull become entangled in pieces of plastic – and that’s the best-case scenario; it is much more common for birds to actually consume large quantities of plastic. | Tom Grundy/Shutterstock

 


CONTRIBUTOR

Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. He also writes on environment and culture. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill and the UN Climate Conference in Paris. His coverage has earned him awards from the Illinois Woman’s Press Association and the International Labor Communications Association. He is currently in Weehawken, in his home state of New Jersey. He likes cats, wine, books, music, and nature. He writes a blog that can be found at blakedeppe.com.

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