Turning the tide on marine pollution
By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Already, plastics are polluting even the most remote parts of our planet. In 2017, scientists found plastic fibres in six of the deepest places in our oceans. Just this year, other teams of researchers found microplastic in arctic ice as well as arctic snow. * ** Plastics end up in our drinking water and on our plates. Odds are we are also breathing them in. What does this mean for our health? And what can we do to turn the tide?
At the start of the 20th century, plastic was hailed as a miracle material: relatively easy to mass-produce, flexible and virtually indestructible unless burned. Plastics are so useful that little more than a century after their invention, we use them for virtually anything: packaging, glues, clothing, furniture, building materials, electronics, cigarette butts and even chewing gum.
Plastic’s main strength is also its main problem though: plastics are not just indestructible but simply impossible to get rid of. Apart from the small portion that has been incinerated, the billions of tons of plastics that we have produced are all still here in some form or other.
Some of that pollution is very visible. You’ll find plastic dumps in landfills and in oceans, where some plastic waste collects in so-called garbage patches. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance, is 1.6 million square kilometres large. That is about three times the size of France.
plastic pollution remains invisible though. As plastics are not biodegradable, sunlight, wind, ocean currents and heat simply break them down into smaller and
smaller pieces: first microplastics (smaller than 5 mm) and then nanoplastics
(smaller than 1 mm) that
pollute all of our oceans and seas.
Should we be worried about the plastics in our oceans?
It is clear that ocean plastics can be dangerous to marine life. Sea creatures can easily become trapped in larger pieces of plastic and often ingest microplastics. To plankton, fish, and whales, these little bits can look a lot like food. As plastics don’t break down, the materials collect in animals’ stomachs. This prevents food digestion and can even lead to starvation. Perhaps even more worrying, smaller pieces of plastic don’t just stay in fish’s stomachs. Research shows that nanoplastics can cross the blood-brain barrier in fish to nestle themselves in fish’s brain tissue. These small plastics can even be passed on to embryos .
Marine animals could therefore have tiny bits of plastic in them before they are even born. And plastics are sure to land on our plates, although it is unclear whether these nanoplastics can also travel through our bodies the same way they do in fish.
An additional worry is that plastics can leak dangerous substances. A team of researchers found that plastics can leach bisphenol and so-called phthalates. These substances are known to interfere with hormones and are linked to reduced fertility.
How are the EEA Grants trying to help?
Under their previous funding mechanism, the EEA Grants funded several projects that aimed to reduce plastic pollution. Some projects focused on more and more advanced recycling of plastics and bioplastics, while others focused on reducing (single-use) plastics.
In Portugal, CIIMAR, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Marine and Environmental Research, is running two campaigns focussed specifically on ocean plastics. Both campaigns focus on ocean literacy, the understanding of the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean. Specifically, the projects aim to make children more aware of marine plastic pollution: its far-reaching effects and what we can do to turn the tide.
Pollution of the Ocean: Global Threats, Local Actionand the Plastic Sea project together formed the Ocean Action Campaign to teach school children about marine pollution, both in the classroom and during extra-curricular activities. The projects organised:
- Science labs where over 5000 students saw with their own eyes how microplastics become stuck in mussels;
- Beach cleanings;
- A life-sized game;
- A giant sculpture made from used plastic bottles with “messages from the sea”;
- A traveling exhibition that was visited by over 8000 people.
What can you do?
Marine plastics are bad news. But what can you do? Cleaning our oceans will require large coordinated efforts, that is for sure, but you can make a start at your level too. You can take a page from CIIMAR’s playbook and start cleaning beaches, for instance, to reduce existing pollution.
More importantly, you can change the way you use plastics. More than half of all marine litter ends up in the ocean after we flush it down the toilet or leave it behind on our beach holidays*. So, your behaviour matters!
Here are CIIMAR’s top tips to help combat marine pollution:
- Don’t flush non-organic waste down the toilet. Most flushed cotton swabs, sanitary towels, wet wipes and condoms end up in our seas.
- Whether you are at the beach or somewhere else, properly dispose of your garbage. Much of the waste you leave behind eventually finds its way to the ocean. It is easily taken by the wind or falls into gutters and drifts out to sea through rainwater networks.
- Avoid using single-use plastics such as plastic straws, cups, cutlery, water bottles and shopping bags. Instead, use reusable utensils from bamboo or metal and get yourself a nice reusable water bottle and shopping bag!
- Try not to use personal care products with microplastics. This can be tricky, because you will find them in whitening toothpastes, exfoliating creams and many cleaning creams and soaps. Not sure what is in your cosmetics? Check the label and look out for polyethylene (PE), polyethylene glycol (PEG), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or nylon. You can also download the “Beat the microbead” app, which helps you to identify products with microplastics.
- Finally, share your concerns about marine litter. Help spread the word by talking to your friends, family and your social networks.