Islands of plastic float around the ocean, proving lethal for wildlife. Communities and grassroots organisations are tackling this global problem together.
March is the month of Clean Up Australia Day — a day when individuals and community organisations around the country commit to cleaning and conserving our environment. Active efforts to remove rubbish from land and waterways are a necessity in the 21st century. We are living in the age geologists have dubbed the Anthropocene, underlining the effect humanity has on the planet. For better or worse, human activity is now the most dominant influence on Earth and its wildlife. Earth is the Goldilocks planet, perfectly positioned and angled to support life. Yet humans have managed to upset this balance and make parts of it uninhabitable for other animals. Piles of our garbage now spoil landscapes on every continent and threaten the survival of many species.
Many of us are acutely aware of this, and on Clean Up Australia Day (Sunday March 4) we may have joined groups of volunteers to valiantly remove chip packets, drink bottles and other single-use plastics from local parks and beaches. Since its inception in the late 1980s, Australians have cleaned up over 300,000 tonnes of garbage around the country. Offshore, however, that same garbage is out of our reach.
Plastics are one of our most abundant and dangerous forms of waste. The qualities that make them a commercially desirable product are the very same that make them a hazard to the health of our planet. They are lightweight, durable, versatile and relatively inexpensive to produce compared with other materials like wood or glass. Since the first plastics were synthesised in the early 20th century, we’ve thought of more and more ways to use them. Our appetite for the cheap and the convenient continues to grow, and we’ve become addicted. We have increased our global plastic production twenty-fold since the 1960s. Like a drug, plastics have now infiltrated every part of our lives and it’s almost impossible to imagine daily routines without them. Furniture, appliances, packaging and clothing all commonly contain plastics.
When plastics inevitably make their way into natural environments, they become lethal. Ingested plastics can block animals’ digestive systems, rupture internal organs, and lead to slow and painful deaths. Plastics are choking and strangling hazards, and the chemicals added to plastics during manufacturing processes can be harmful to health.
Plastic pollution in oceans is even more sinister than plastic pollution on land. Unlike wood or cardboard, ready to be composted or absorbed back into the soil, plastics are eternal; they can only be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics, the name given to tiny fragments of plastics, have been identified in over 90% of bottled water. These microscopic pollutants enter the base of the food chain through zooplankton, and are subsequently consumed by larger marine animals like fish, turtles, birds, seals and whales. Plastics have been found inside the bodies of all these animals.
By 2050, there will be more plastics in our oceans than fish. But we don’t have to wait another 30 years to see the effects of plastic pollution on marine life. Dr Jennifer Lavers is an eco-toxicologist who works with seabirds on Lord Howe Island, 600 kilometres off the coast of New South Wales. Her research focuses on flesh-footed shearwaters, one of the world’s most contaminated species of seabird. Adults bring their chicks food from the nearby ocean, fishing out flashes of colour that catch their eye. Unfortunately, many of these morsels are pieces of plastic mistaken for fish. Adult seabirds are unwittingly feeding their chicks a lethal plastic soup, a soup we’ve accidentally brewed ourselves.
Over 90% of flesh-footed shearwaters contain some form of plastic, and their numbers and health have declined significantly over the past few decades. Their demise mirrors that of other species. Laysan albatross chicks on remote Hawaiian islands starve to death as a result of stomachs filled with plastic. Turtles on Australia’s northern beaches are frequently entangled and washed ashore in fishing nets and other floating rubbish.
In the ocean, our plastic waste is not geographically constrained. The ocean’s currents and waves can carry our garbage far from its point of origin. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a swirling region of sea the size of Texas, filled with plastics and strangled marine animals. There are at least four other garbage gyres worldwide, all choked with plastic from far and wide. The oceans’ waves do not abide by political or geographical boundaries. One country’s plastic waste will wash up on the back doorstep of another.
Our garbage is everywhere.
But the problem isn’t going unnoticed. In the past few years, there have been several critically acclaimed documentaries on the urgent issue of declining ocean health, such as Blue and A Plastic Ocean. Dozens of not-for-profit organisations dedicated to turning the tide on plastic pollution have sprung up around the world, from Take 3 for the Sea, here in Australia, to By the Ocean We Unite in the Netherlands.
For Thomas van Thiel, founder of By the Ocean We Unite, the key is collaboration and believing in people. An avid sailor, van Thiel was devastated by the plastic pollution he saw while on an 11-day trans-Atlantic sailing trip, far from any land. But instead of despair and anger, he turned to teamwork and hope. He founded the Amsterdam-based not-for-profit organisation in 2016, and has been campaigning for positive changes in consumer habits and greater public awareness of the threat that plastic pollution presents to our oceans. Their name says it all: By the Ocean We Unite aims to empower people to drive change by taking groups on ocean expeditions to see plastic pollution themselves.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the problem at hand. The plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not expected to disappear within the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren. But van Thiel, like many other leaders of grass-roots organisations, is optimistic and believes in the power of small-scale change to bring about large-scale action. “I am hopeful,” he said. “If we are planning on sending people to Mars, then we have the capacity to solve the issue of plastic pollution. There is a lot to do, but if we work together then we can achieve it.”
Van Thiel practises what he preaches. By The Ocean We Unite collaborates with many local and international organisations. They share data from their expeditions with the 5 Gyres Institute, a not-for-profit organisation based in California that’s dedicated to raising public awareness and facilitating research on ocean plastic pollution.
However, van Thiel admits that there is no easy fix in sight. Once in the ocean, plastic is virtually impossible to remove — we can only clear the 1% of plastic that floats on the ocean’s surface. There are initiatives underway to develop technologies capable of filtering our home-brewed plastic ocean soup, but for now the only tool we have to tackle plastic pollution is awareness and prevention. Reducing our consumption and recycling what we use is the cheapest and most sustainable way to keep ocean pollution under control. This is easier said than done, especially on a global environmental issue where responsibilities and borders are blurred.
Toxic, strong, immortal, and near impossible to remove. Alongside climate change, ocean plastics may be one of the greatest global challenges we’ve ever faced.
But if hope persists, it is in grassroots organisations around the world, collaborating across borders, gently pushing society to change. Just as Clean Up Australia Day scaled up into Clean Up the World Day in 1993, so too have organisations dedicated to protecting our oceans. We are better connected with the world than ever before, and our connectivity is being put to good use.
We are also all connected to and connected by the ocean, and have the responsibility to help protect it. Every piece of plastic we’ve ever used is still on the planet today. And every new, unnecessary piece of plastic we buy is contributing to a world that values convenience over sustainability. We no longer have the luxury of doing so. The time has come to treat plastics with the caution that they deserve, connect with our fellow global citizens, and save our plastic seas.
Edited by Ena Music