Published 22 Jun 2018
The devastating impact of plastic pollution on our oceans has now surfaced, but the good news is that organisations working to protect the sea are showing very clearly how the power to tackle and maybe even reverse the problem lies in the hands of consumers and the choices we all make.
The UK government has recently agreed to ban microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2017, following in the footsteps of the US. But cutting out these tiny plastic particles is just the beginning of tackling the problem, and a new report from Plastic Oceans and Brunel University says that the real solution lies in a shift whereby plastic is only ever used within a closed loop, circular economy.
In the Indian Ocean, a pygmy blue whale calf moves through the sea. Swirling above this ocean giant, is an oily, plastic soup made up of microplastics: particles which were once plastic bags, bottles, and other waste packaging products, but which have since been broken down by the sun. This is the same plastic-polluted water the whale will swallow - 75,000 litres of it every time she opens her mouth for krill.
This was one of the scenes facing the UK makers of the film A Plastic Ocean. Now the foundation behind the film, Plastic Oceans, has teamed up with the researchers at Brunel University to release a new report outlining the science that underpins the documentary.
It says that nearly 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced globally each year - a figure which is the equivalent to the biomass of the planet’s entire adult human population. Of that volume, eight million metric tons enter the ocean directly from land-based sources and this, say scientists, is set to increase vastly by 2025 due to a rising global population and expanding economic development.
There is clear evidence of ocean plastic pollution throughout the food chain and according to the new report, over 90% of all seabirds have swallowed some form of oceanic plastic waste. At the bottom of the food chain, plankton may be microscopic, but they are an important food source to larger marine animals, such as whales and fish. Plankton is now ingesting microplastic, which then moves up through the food chain, transferring from prey to larger and larger predators until it makes an inevitable appearance in the human food chain.
Waste plastics frequently present an environmental chemical hazard by leaching polluting chemicals into the surroundings where they have been ditched. According to the researchers at Brunel University, a secondary hazard is plastic’s property of absorbing other chemicals originating from industry and agriculture, which have also been dumped in the sea. The chemicals are often repelled by water, so once they find their way into plastic they can end up in a far more concentrated form. Plastic pellets found close to the coastline of Japan have shown levels of toxic substances which were up to a million times more concentrated than in the surrounding seawater.
Jo Ruxton, the film’s producer and UK executive director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation, says: “Now we know just how quickly plastic attracts other chemicals when it gets into the ocean, we would argue that plastics should be reclassified as hazardous in water.”
The plastic pellets used to produce plastic items are another source of serious concern: “At the moment, recycled plastic is more expensive than virgin plastic so a change in policy as simple as lowering the tax on recycled plastic pellets would make a significant difference to the problem,” she adds.
A Plastic Ocean is one tool in the fight against plastic pollution. In raising awareness, the filmmakers hope to create a wave of change among consumers, businesses, and governments. Its authors confirm the documentary and report will be shared with as many governments as possible, to change the minds of policy-makers and convince them of the very real and escalating risks to the ocean, the environment and even human health of the continued single-use plastic.
When Jo Ruxton first ventured out to witness plastic in the ocean, she expected to see ‘islands of rubbish.’ But the reality, she says, was far worse: “What I saw wasn’t what I had imagined - something where you could take a fleet of boats along, gather it all up and recycle it on the spot. The plastic is all mixed in with plankton, and there was just so much of it. We were trawling night and day. Every single trawl was just choked with plastic.”
Spanning the width of the ocean from the West Coast of America to Japan lies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of several across the world. A spinning vortex of marine debris, the patch of rubbish in the sea is made up of two areas swamped in plastic - the Western Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch. Both are created when debris makes its way to the centre of ocean gyres, which are circular currents created by wind patterns, the rotation of the planet, and landmass.
For the Plastic Oceans Foundation, recycling is a last resort. Every time plastic is recycled the quality diminishes, and after two or three cycles the material is useless. Jo explains: “Of course it’s better than chucking it in the ocean, but not using plastic in the first place is by far the best thing we can do.”
Before plastic hits the recycling bin, there are alternatives for keeping it out of the ocean, and they start with people power: “People drive business. Demand drives supply and if people start demanding different things, then businesses will have to start changing the way they supply them. And if people are choosing businesses because of the packaging as well, not just the product, then other businesses will follow suit.”
As well as this strength in numbers, there is also much we can do as individuals. An anecdote Jo draws inspiration from, is a five-year-old girl who made it her mission to not only refuse plastic straws, but to tell local restaurant owners why they should not be offering the single use product, but instead switch to using paper or bamboo alternatives.
“If a little kid like that can do it, all of us can make a difference,” says Jo.
City to Sea is a UK organisation that is also on a mission to phase out single-use plastics. By campaigning and raising awareness nationwide, it is encouraging both businesses and environmental campaigners to make small changes, which will have a big impact.
One such change was persuading all major UK retailers to stop selling plastic ear buds and make the switch to paper alternatives by the end of 2016. Over 150,000 people signed the #SwitchTheStick petition, and pledged not to buy plastic cotton buds. The organisation’s founder, Natalie Fee, says: “What that really did for retailers, was show that there is a strong public appetite for change.”
Focusing on this single issue will result in stopping over 320 tonnes of single use plastic being produced annually for UK markets from this point onwards. This is single-use plastic that would never have been recycled, the bulk of which may have ended up being flushed away into the sea.
The founder of this Bristol-based organisation and now a self-proclaimed Green Champion, Natalie, adds: “Plastic pollution is a massive problem, but if we just change little things like not using plastic bags, water bottles, and cotton buds, then that really is a good way to start to tackle it.”
Natalie was inspired to act after seeing TV footage of albatross chicks starving in their nests with their stomachs full of plastic: “I couldn’t just sit back and let that happen,” she says. “It was like seeing my everyday items of plastic inside the stomach of albatross chicks thousands of miles away, and for me that was really, really wrong. That’s why I decided to do something about it.”
Plastic bottles are currently on the agenda for City to Sea, with the Refill campaign setting out to change behaviours when it comes to drinking water on the go. The Refill app encourages people to take a reusable bottle out with them, and fill up with tap water at participating cafés, shops, or other businesses. A digital map shows where a friendly tap is available, and the user gets points for filling up. Points can eventually be exchanged for a stainless steel water bottle.
So far, over 700 businesses in the UK have registered with the app, but the main aim of this venture is to change consumer behaviour: “It’s about breaking down the taboos, so that people feel comfortable about going in and asking for something for free from a shop or cafe, and giving them a reason to remember to carry their water bottle with them.”
Licensed premises in the UK are required by law to provide tap water on request, but a recent survey found that 71% of people would be uncomfortable asking for free tap water without buying something else.
Social media has also become a powerful tool in the fight against single-use plastic, with City to Sea raising awareness through videos about topics ranging from the dirty truth behind flushable wet wipes, to plastic-free periods.
When it comes to enacting meaningful change, Natalie has the following advice: “Firstly, you have to stop buying those products you don’t want to see on the shelves. Then you have to either get in touch with the suppliers, or join or start a campaign.
“The retailers and manufacturers do respond to public pressure, but there needs to be a lot of it, and it needs to be coordinated.”
Having proved that individuals can and do make a difference, it is, says Natalie, consumers, who have all the change-making power.
Photos courtesy of David Jones