Swimming in a sea of plastic

Lewis Pugh, who recently completed the “Long Swim” through the 350 miles of the English Channel, undertook the “Everest of swims” to raise awareness of the threat to the UK’s coastal waters from climate change, over-fishing and plastic pollution.  His blog http://lewispugh.com/the-long-swim/ explains why he’s so passionate about the state of our oceans and how much environmental devastation he’s witnessed in 30 years of swimming in oceans worldwide.

Plastic is the major source of marine pollution – an estimated 12m tonnes of plastic enters the sea every year, finding its way to the most remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic and even the Mariana Trench (the world’s deepest known ocean area).

According to US organisation, Ecowatch, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile in the ocean.  Experts estimate that there are six times more plastic in the oceans than plankton. Some claim that by 2050, there’ll be more plastic by weight than fish in the sea.

If you watched the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series last year, you will have seen the impact of this pollution on marine life, but its impact is far wider, affecting livelihoods, food sources and potentially our health too.

According to the EU Environment Commission, “around the globe, seas and oceans absorb 25-30% of CO2 emissions and provide livelihoods for 3 billion people.”

Pollution, marine litter, underwater noise and damage to the sea floor are all putting pressure on ecosystems, while some 1350 alien species have established themselves in European seas since the 1950s”.

There’s evidence that marine plastic pollution is now affecting the food chain, although the scale of this is not fully understood according to the EU Food Safety Agency – https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/160623.

 

How did we get here?

Plastic, plastic everywhere. Over the last 10 years, we’ve produced more plastic than was produced over the whole of the last century.   Our lifestyles – eating and drinking on the go, convenience food, easy-care fabrics, furniture, the infamous plastic carrier bag – all play a part in pollution.  Plastic was made to last – in industrial applications, technology and transport, that’s no doubt a plus and on the upside, scientists are working now on developing bio-plastics that are more environmentally friendly (https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics).  But today, we’re dealing with a deluge of plastic that simply doesn’t degrade – it persists for hundreds of years, leaking pollutants into air, soil and water…

According to the BBC, a paper published in July this year (in the journal Science Advances, written by industrial ecologist Dr Roland Geyer, University of California, and colleagues), calculated the total volume of all plastic ever produced at 8.3bn tonnes.

Of this, some 6.3bn tonnes is now waste – and 79% of that is in landfill or the natural environment.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42264788 

How bad can it get? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been forming since 1985 between the coasts of California and Hawaii and is thought by some to be twice the size of Texas.  It’s believed to comprise at least 80,000 tons of plastic rubbish – the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets.  There are other similar patches across the world, resulting from a combination of atmospheric and oceanic forces that concentrate and trap debris of all kinds in certain areas of the ocean.

It’s the “travelling” nature of plastic and its durability that make it such a threat to marine life – BBC Science Editor David Shukman explains how plastic travels here:

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44359614

What’s being done?

In April this year, the government pledged £61m to fund the drive to combat marine waste by tackling the problem at source i.e. by preventing plastic debris from entering the ocean and to aid improvements in waste management in developing countries.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-rallies-commonwealth-to-unite-on-marine-waste

This follows on from Michael Gove’s speech to the World Wildlife Fund when he acknowledged that, in addition to the bans announced in April’s press release, “ there is more we can do to protect our oceans, so we will explore new methods of reducing the amount of plastic – in particular plastic bottles – entering our seas, improve incentives for reducing waste and litter, and review the penalties available to deal with polluters”.

In fact, the current UK government has a 25-year environmental plan designed to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK over the period and a stated aim to “set the global gold standard on the environment”.

 

Beyond saying no to single use plastic

The campaign to “Say no to single use plastic” has gone truly viral worldwide, a great example of collective will and action.  More than 40 British businesses have responded by joining the UK Plastics Pact which has pledged to eliminate single use plastics by 2025.  The Pact includes food and non-food brands that are described by commentators as “collectively responsible for more than 80% of the UK’s supermarket plastic packaging”.

Whilst the wheels of government turn, and the packagers work on alternative solutions to single use plastic, the rest of us can take practical steps to help prevent pollutants, including plastic, reaching the ocean in the first place.

  • Reuse – carry a reusable bottle, take bags with you when shopping
  • Dispose of products properly – it’s not just plastics that threaten water quality.  Cleaning products, paint, batteries and pesticides are all contributors
  • Take your litter home after a day at the beach
  • Opt for unpackaged fresh foods if possible

Steps like this can help to reduce plastic waste, but more than likely, you’ll still need to recycle.  For a quick, visual guide to what can be recycled in your area, including those “hard to dispose of” products, our Agile@HOME smart app can help.  If your council subscribes to Agile@HOME, you’ll have an instant reminder of when your collection is due.

By reducing our reliance on plastic and recycling as much as possible, we’ll hopefully prevent non-recyclable waste from making its way to the ocean – after all, no-one wants to swim in a sea of plastic.

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