Plastic in the Marine Environment

Plastic in the Marine Environment

Globally, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, 50% of which is for single use items and a staggering 8 million tonnes of this ends up in our oceans. Over the last decade we have produced more plastic than the whole of the last century (1). This is having a profound impact on human health as well as the health of the oceans (2).

 

How does it get there?

Plastic enters our oceans in a variety of different forms and their presence has been detected in every ocean from the shorelines, down to the deep sea (3). It can enter either as whole pieces, such as plastic packaging, abandoned fishing nets, or as microplastics, less than 5mm long (whole pieces can also break down to become microplastics).

 

The plastic enters through various sources including run-off from land - landfill, wastewater treatments or simply from people littering. But the main, and not as well known, contributor is a by-product of the fishing industry. Plastic straws gain a lot of media attention, but they account for less than 1% of marine litter. Whereas, discarded fishing gear accounts for 37% of all plastic in the oceans. Reducing our plastic consumption does have an impact, but we should be addressing the main issue.

 

What are the effects of all this plastic in our oceans?

Microplastics

Microplastics accumulate lower down the food chain. They are ingested by filter feeding or sediment ingesting organisms that mistake it for suspended particulate matter or sediment (4). These organisms are then ingested by slightly larger fish, who are then eaten by even larger fish. The microplastics accumulate up the food chain (5). If you eat fish, it is more than likely that you will have ingested plastic - this can increase the risk of serious health issues including infertility and cancer.

 

Abandoned Fishing Nets

Abandoned fishing nets or ‘ghost nets’ pose a great threat to marine mammals, sea birds and fish. Every year, over 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is abandoned in our oceans (6), entrapping many marine animals. Fishing nets make up 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The fishing nets can become wrapped around the animals body, preventing them from swimming. In the case of air breathing mammals, the nets can prevents them from reaching the surface, causing them to drown.

 

Floating Plastics

Floating plastics are the most abundant marine litter. Animals can mistake the plastic for food. Not only can this block their digestive tracts and damage their stomach linings, but it can fill their stomachs, reducing their appetite, causing death due to starvation or lack of nutrients. Ongoing studies on seabirds have found that over 90% have plastic in their stomach (7).

 

Beyond the Ocean

The tourism industry has taken a huge hit as once pristine beaches are now littered with plastic. This has had a knock-on effect on local economies both due to the lack of tourists and also the cost of cleaning up the beaches and oceans (8).

 

What can we do to help?

There are easy things that we can do in our day-to-day lives that will make a real difference to the state of our oceans:

  • Use less plastic – Try cutting plastic from your supermarket shop by ordering plastic-free farm produce online. A couple of great UK based delivery services are Riverford or Farmdrop - check your local area for delivery.
  • Eat less fish - the best way to reduce the amount of fishing nets abandoned at sea is to reduce how much we fish.
  • Donate to charities that are doing their best to clean up our oceans. We donate a percentage of the sale of each item to the Marine Conservation Society.

 

Making small changes to your day-to-day routine will have a profound impact on the environment.  One person really can make a difference!

 

There is hope?... I think

Legal efforts have been made to address marine pollution, dating back to 1972. ‘The London Convention’, or the ‘Convention of the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter’ was created to address issues related to marine pollution, on an international level (9). Other conventions followed. Unfortunately, compliance with these laws was and still is poor due to limited financial resources to enforce them.

Luckily, there are many charities who are dedicated to cleaning up the oceans to protect the marine wildlife. But I think we can all agree that efforts need to be made to prevent the plastic getting there in the first place.

We are proud to have crafted our garments out of abandoned fishing nets. You can read more about our materials here. We will continue to do all that we can to reduce our impact on the environment.

 

References:

  1. https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/
  2. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics#issue
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21894925/
  4. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(17)30076-3.pdf
  5. https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment/2019/06/you-eat-thousands-bits-plastic-every-year
  6. https://www.worldanimalprotection.us/our-work/animals-wild/sea-change-campaign-tackling-ghost-fishing-gear
  7. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/167386/health-seabirds-threatened-90-cent-swallow/#:~:text=The%20researchers%20found%20that%20while,have%20swallowed%20plastics%20by%202050.&text=This%20is%20a%20huge%20amount,the%20ubiquity%20of%20plastic%20pollution.%22
  8. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics#issue
  9. https://www.imo.org/en/OurWork/Environment/Pages/London-Convention-Protocol.aspx#:~:text=The%20%22Convention%20on%20the%20Prevention,been%20in%20force%20since%201975.

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