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What are the Effects of Plastic Pollution on Marine Life?

By August 12, 2019 No Comments
Bird nesting in plastic fishing nets

It doesn’t decay, you know, it’s wonderful.” 

Sir David Attenborough recalls his headmaster making this haunting statement over 80 years ago. He was referring to plastic.

There’s no doubt that plastic was innovative at the time, but everyone failed to see that our love for it would lead to a rise of cheap products and a throwaway culture that now leaves us with a major environmental crisis, particularly regarding our seas and waterways. And no one predicted the effects this plastic pollution would have on our marine life.

Every year, around 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enters our seas. Every minute, in fact, one refuse truckload of plastic is dumped in our oceans. If these rates continue, experts predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our seas than fish

And, as the headmaster stated over 80 years ago, plastic doesn’t degrade or decay, and it certainly won’t disappear. It just accumulates. Taking over our seas and killing our marine life.

Where does plastic pollution come from?

Beach with plastic covering the sand

Our rubbish and waste

One of the biggest sources of plastic into our seas is simply littering. Rubbish left on the beach after a day out, refuse fly-tipped in our rivers and waste blown in from our streets – all contribute to a massive problem. 

And a lot of this rubbish comes from single-use plastics. Straws, bottles, bags, crisp packets, stirrers, coffee cups, yogurt pots – the list goes on. A huge proportion of our waste comes from plastics that we use just once, and then throw it away. Sometimes we put it in the bin, but sometimes we don’t, and it works its way into our seas. These single-use items are also notoriously hard to recycle. 

Take a coffee cup for example. We throw away an estimated 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups each year. A lot of people think that these paper-looking cups are recyclable. But the plastic inner which makes them heatproof and watertight is often bound to the paper outer in such a way that it can’t be recycled. 

There’s now so much rubbish in our seas that it’s clumping together to form vast floating garbage patches all over the world. Take the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) for example. This floating mass of waste between Hawaii and California is the world’s largest and contains around 80,000 tonnes of plastic, or 500 jumbo jets worth. 

Our rivers

80% of plastic rubbish flows into the sea from our rivers. According to a recent report from Earthwatch Europe and Plastic Oceans UK, plastic drinks bottles were the biggest offender, representing a whopping 14% of the identifiable plastic waste in the European freshwaters. Food wrappers and takeaway cups were also particularly prevalent, with 12% and 6% respectively. All of these are single-use and non-recyclable.

Our sewage system

Plastic waste also enters our seas from our sewage system. Plastic-stemmed cotton buds and disposable wet wipes are flushed in vast quantities every day, wreaking havoc on our sewers, polluting our oceans and harming our marine life.

Microplastics are also a major polluter. These tiny pieces of plastic measure less than five millimeters long and are very difficult to filter. They enter our waterways from things like facial scrubs and even synthetic clothing that shed fibres in the washing machine. A single clothes wash can release up to 700,000 microplastic fibres!

The fishing industry

Debris from the fishing industry, known as ghost gear, is also a major source of plastic pollution in our seas. Things like abandoned nets are a major hazard for marine life, causing a reported 3,200 incidences of damage to wildlife last year in English and Wales.

How does plastic pollution affect marine life?

Plastic glove floating in the water

Devastating wounds

According to a recent report from the RSPCA, plastic waste caused 579 cases of harm to wildlife in 2018 in England and Wales alone, up from 473 in 2015. 

The biggest cause of damage to wildlife is physical wounds or entrapment. Fish and marine birds becoming entangled in things like plastic bags and plastic drinks rings. This can cause painful wounds, strangulation or even drowning. Birds, mammals, and reptiles that live in the sea, but still need to air to breathe, can become so entangled that they cannot surface for oxygen, and they drown.

There have been a number of heart-wrenching viral videos and images showing the devastating wounds some marine life suffer as a result of pollution in our oceans. Who can forget the tear-jerking video of the turtle with a straw stuck up his nose, the whale shark trapped in a commercial fishing line or the tiny seahorse holding a cotton bud

While this content may be heartbreaking to watch, it’s communication goes a long way to raise awareness for this worldwide problem.

Mistaken as food

The other major danger of plastic in our seas is that it’s often mistaken for food and eaten by marine life. These unsuspecting creatures consume the plastic, which can choke them, cause internal injuries or slowly starve them to death. 

A recent BBC documentary, “Drowning in Plastic”, told us the story of the shearwater colonies off the coast of Australia and New Zealand. 

Shearwaters eat more plastic than any other mammal and are starving themselves to death. They often unknowingly feed fragments of plastic to their young, filling their stomachs and leaving no room for food. The fledglings then don’t get the nutrition they need and can’t fend for themselves when they head out to sea. 

In order to save these birds, biologists have been capturing their young and flushing out their stomachs with sea water. Scientists claim to have taken up to 250 pieces of plastic out of a single bird. 

And this is just one story.

Microplastics

Tiny microplastics enter our seas as small plastics like microbeads from cosmetics or fibres from synthetic clothing. But they can also be created at sea as the elements breakdown larger plastic items. Think of how many tiny pieces of plastic can be made from one plastic bag!

Scientists are starting to find microplastics in sea and bird life. A recent study from Plymouth University, examined 504 fish caught off the coast of South West England and found one third contained microplastics. In sea birds alone, microplastics have been found to disrupt iron absorption of the small intestine and put stress on the liver. 

Blue ocean with coral reef surrounded by tropical fish

Coral reefs

Plastics have also been found to kill coral reefs, which are an essential part of our oceans ecosystems and home to thousands of species. Plastics carry bacteria, and they block light and oxygen from getting into the coral. Coral that has come into contact with plastic is 89% more likely to become diseased

The long-term effects of plastic on the ocean

As mentioned, plastic does not degrade. It lasts forever – although it gets smaller and potentially, more deadly over time. A recent social media post went viral when it showed a Mars Bar wrapper from 1986 found on Constantine Bay in our beloved Cornwall. An overwhelming number of people commented with similar stories of ancient plastic waste found on our beaches and forests.

Very old mars bar wrapper

Photo Credit to the Beach Guardian

If we keep going the way we are, there will be more plastic in our seas than fish. What will this mean for our ecosystem? Our food chain? Our lifestyle? Our health?

No one knows.

A study last year uncovered microplastics in human stools for the first time. And microplastics have also been found in 83% of drinking water, so plastics are entering the food chain. Scientists don’t know yet what impact these plastics will have on human health, but it’s been suggested that they could affect our immune response or absorption of toxic chemicals.

What can we do to help?

Reduce, recycle, reuse

Nowadays we are much better at recycling than we used to be. But we simply have too much plastic waste to recycle it all. We’ve such a large volume of plastic waste that we have to export around 600,000 tonnes of it to other countries each year. This then causes waste issues in destination countries like China and Malaysia. In fact, China now refuses to accept any more of our plastic waste. 

So as well as recycling, we need to decrease the amount of waste we create, by reducing and reusing where possible. 

The dreaded single-use plastics that appear so prominently in our waterways is a major area where we can improve. Choosing reusable coffee cups and drinks bottles are an easy way to tackle single-use plastics. And although the plastic bag charge that was introduced in 2015 has reduced the number we use, you could take it a step further by bringing reusable canvas or straw bags, rather than the heavy-duty plastic-based options.

Another way to reduce single-use plastic is to go for loose fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, rather than those pre-packed in plastic bags. Many supermarkets and local shops are beginning to offer more bagless options. Morrison claims that their plastic-free fruit and veg initiative alone will save 156 tonnes of plastic a year. And there is an increasing number of zero-waste shops popping up, like Cornwall’s Incredible Bulk, who sell loose, packaging-free food and home products. You simply bring your own reusable containers.

The government is supporting the initiative to reduce single-use plastic too by banning some of the big offending items. From April 2020, single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cotton buds will be banned. Paper alternatives are available, but why not try to go without?

Group of people doing a beach clean

Beach cleans

As well as doing the 3 Rs, you could participate in a beach clean. There are a number of regularly organised events around the country, where volunteers get together to pick up litter and plastic from our beaches. This year we participated in “Love Your Beach Day” on Valentine’s Day in Cornwall and were shocked at how much plastic we picked up. 

Or why not do your own #2minutebeachclean? Martin Dorey and Tab Parry’s 2-minute movement has raised massive awareness for beach cleans across social media, and their beach cleaning stations (which include bags and grabbers) are located on beaches across the country for you to take advantage of.

Organisations leading the way to a better world

Given the urgency and importance of reducing our plastic waste, there are a growing number of charities and organisations that are leading the way to reduce our plastic and improving our oceans. If you’d like to know more about what to do or how to help, they’re a great place to start:

Surfers Against Sewage – One of the UK’s leading environmental charities. They’re dedicated to the protection of the ocean, beaches, and wildlife. They educate, fundraise and organise events across the country to promote the preservation of our seas.

Protectors of the Sea – A non-profit organisation that aims to protect wildlife around the coastline through education and awareness building.

Beach Guardian – A Community Interest Company based in Cornwall that promotes, organises and educates people about beach cleans, reducing waste and tackling pollution in our seas.

The future of our marine life

There’s no doubt that plastic is having a devastating effect on our marine life. And who knows what that will mean for the future of our planet. Thankfully we are starting to change and there are some initiatives that are helping us improve our plastic-based culture. But we’ve still got a long way to go. 

The future of our marine life is in our hands. Will you help save it?

Sources:

https://www.oceanunite.org/issues/marine-plastic-pollution/

https://earthwatch.org.uk/images/plastic/PlasticRiversReport.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/08/drinks-bottles-now-biggest-plastic-menace-for-waterways-report

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/sep/25/david-attenborough-on-the-scourge-of-the-oceans-i-remember-being-told-plastic-doesnt-decay-its-wonderful

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/04/animals-birds-plastic-waste-rspca

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-animals-wildlife-impact-waste-pollution/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-animals-wildlife-impact-waste-pollution