With the G7 summit being held in Carbis Bay this year, sustainable surf brand Finisterre this week held an ocean activist training camp (Sea7) that called on world leaders to address ocean issues and help equip ocean lovers with the tools and techniques to make a difference.
We also used the event to preview our latest film project “The Convergence Zone” in which we explore the connection between surfers and ocean literacy (you can keep an eye out for its release here before the end of the month!).
And this then is the first of June’s “World Ocean – Ocean Wave” journal series – where we take a look at an ocean issue that is in fact a human issue: Marine Plastic Pollution.
We’re all aware by now that a lot of plastic has ended up in the ocean and is wreaking havoc on marine wildlife. With scary headlines like “more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050” doing the rounds for the last 5 years, it’s become part of our zeitgeist and is now known as a “wicked problem”, because the issue is so huge, and has many moving parts.
A lot of important time and energy is wasted trying to blame others for our waste, but there are so many layers to this issue it’s been agreed that there is not one simple solution. Instead, a systemic approach is needed, one that tackles plastic pollution across multiple locations and sectors, that is adaptable to those who have different needs and that responds to the diversity of this problem.
So how do we find out the facts about how much plastic waste is currently in the ocean? And more importantly, what can be done about it?
First of all, it all comes down to plastic’s incredibly durable and indestructible nature. It was designed to never biodegrade, and as we’ve been making plastic since the 1950s, at an expansion rate of 6.8 million tons per year. According to National Geographic: “We began by producing 1.8 million tons in 1950 to 465 million tons in 2018. As of 2017, 7 billion of the 8.8 billion tons produced globally over that whole period have become waste.”
Now, in 2021, we have accumulated an awful lot of plastic waste. Whilst most of that disused plastic is now rotting away in landfills (another story!), some of it made it into the sea, most likely through large rivers close to huge urban settlements. Flowing out from land to sea, this plastic waste is now at the mercy of the ocean currents.
Captain Charles Moore was the first person to discover the Pacific Gyre (also known as the great garbage patch) in 1997 and we now know this is more like a plastic soup than a solid island. In fact we now know that there are five gyres of plastic, accumulating where global currents meet.
Of course, plastic in the ocean might sink, it might get washed up to shore and it might just continue to travel round the Earth in global currents, like a piece of flotsam. This means it is very difficult to find evidence of exactly how much plastic was in the ocean although another sailing scientist, Nikolai Maximenco, started doing the calculations and in 2015, Jambeck et al. released a scientific paper reporting that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year. The scientists issued a warning that if this level of output were to remain (and indeed grow as it has been doing over the last 70 years), the plastic waste would outweigh the fish.
Whilst plastic does not disappear, it does break down to create microplastics – another piece in the marine plastic puzzle that means we cannot easily mitigate its impact. Microplastics can be easily ingested by marine life, and the chemical compounds of plastic polymers bioaccumulate as they transfer down the food chain.
Meaning that the fish eat plastic and, of course, if we eat that fish, we’re also eating plastic.
In 2019 I took to the high seas with citizen science research vessel eXXpedition, returning not only with more knowledge of the devastating effects of marine microplastics but also an idea of strategic solutions necessary to tackle the global issue of marine plastic.
As mentioned earlier, it really does require a systemic approach, covering production, waste management and getting down to clean up operations quickly and efficiently. Here are its four key elements:
One: The first (or hardest step) is cutting off or heavily reducing plastic production AT SOURCE. This involves policy change, industry change and stricter rules around plastic production. Plastic is made from ethanol, a byproduct of the oil industry (get up to speed on plastic) and one solution is to change the base product of plastic to be bio-based. Common Seas is a UK-based social enterprise tackling the plastic pollution crisis by driving new policy, investing in the circular economy and catalysing a cultural shift in how we make, use and dispose of plastic.
Two: Changing, updating and improving the systems that allow us to deal with plastic production, consumption and disposal is needed, specifically incorporating the circular economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been pivotal in bringing this concept to life and here are just a few examples of companies reusing waste products to make new:
Three: Better waste management techniques are needed, but slowly countries and organisations are beginning to improve, employ and invest in better strategies to stop plastic waste from land entering the ocean:
Four: We still need to improve clean up operations whilst mobilising individuals and communities to change their habits and align on behalf of their local coastal habitats and the places they love. Small actions still add up, and if 8 billion humans chip in, it will make a significant positive impact for the ocean, here’s a couple of local initiatives you can get involved with:
Do take to socials and let us know what you think about the issues of Marine Plastic Pollution, and keep an eye out too for the next in the series where we talk all things ocean acidification…