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Plastics don’t pollute, people pollute

Plastic Nurdles Wellington

Walking along the beach last week I was overtaken by a plastic supermarket bag which filled with wind and took off as I reached out to grab it. Retrieving it from the sea I disposed of it more responsibly. Northlanders are incredibly fortunate to enjoy some of the most pristine beach environments and clean seas on the planet – but how long will this last? 8000 kms away on the diagonally opposite side of the Pacific Ocean a gigantic soup of plastic rubbish the size of Texas is slowly circulating to the NE of Hawai’i. Caught in the centre of the North Pacific Gyre, a vast swirling vortex of ocean currents, the waste is drawn in from all over the ocean to form the biggest rubbish dump in the world.

It is estimated that pieces of plastic in the area outweigh surface zooplankton, the tiny animals forming the base of the marine food web, by six to one.

Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our society – take a look around your home and count what is made of plastic, you’ll be amazed! Their durability and stability which makes them so useful to us are the very qualities that make them so harmful to marine creatures. Petro-chemical based plastics are non-biodegradable, so, “Every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere,” says Tony Andrady, a chemist with the US-based Research Triangle Institute.

They may not be bio-degradable, but they are photo-degradable meaning that over time sunlight breaks them down into ever smaller fragments and eventually plastic dust. These small fragments are mistaken for food by marine creatures – many of which are low down the food chain causing higher and higher concentrations to accumulate near the top – ultimately ending up on your dinner table in your tuna bake!

A more sinister side to this plastic horror story is the ability of marine plastic to act as a “chemical sponge” absorbing man-made chemicals, such as PCBs and DDT, and concentrating them tens of thousands of times more than seawater can. Any animal eating these pieces of plastic debris is therefore taking in a cocktail of highly toxic pollutants which, when released from the plastic by digestion, becomes part of the food web and increases the toxic load in the flesh of tuna, sharks and other top predators consumed by humans.

Many marine birds and fishes ingest plastic, because it mimics the food they eat. Dead seabirds have been found with their stomachs full of bottle tops, cigarette lighters, toothbrushes and balloons. Adults will regurgitate plastics into their young killing them. A turtle found dead in Hawaii had over a thousand pieces of plastic in its stomach and intestines. A minke whale washed up on a beach in France in 2002 had 9 plastic bags, 7 dustbin bags, 1 food wrapper and 1 crisp packet in its stomach. Stranded seals and turtles have been found with their stomachs so full of plastic that they are unable to feed and are starving.

Plastic bags are serial killers to marine life. The fish, whale, turtle or bird that ingests the bag dies and decomposes around the bag which then floats off ready for its next victim. We can’t let this dangerous cycle continue indefinitely. Each one of us is in a powerful position to take responsibility for our actions if we remember that plastics don’t pollute, people pollute.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch will be highlighted this summer by Roz Savage, a member of OceansWatch www.oceanswatch.org. Roz is bidding to be the first woman ever to row solo across the Pacific Ocean. She will depart next month from California on the first leg of a three-stage row to Australia. Follow her eyewitness reports of plastic pollution at www.rozsavage.com

The facts

  • Plastics, like diamonds, are forever. Every piece of plastic ever produced still exists. 
  • According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than 1 million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. 
  • C 100 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally every year. 10% ends up in the ocean.
  • Roughly 1 million plastic bags are consumed globally per minute 
  • Charles Moore, an American oceanographer who discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” believes that about 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the region. 
  • Plastic food wrappers, bags, balloons, bottles, cigarette filters and packaging, monofilament fishing nets and line and Styrofoam pellets make up about 90% of the debris found floating in the world’s oceans.

Article by Jane Pares, Secretary and a Trustee of OceansWatch, www.oceanswatch.org