How Plastic is Affecting the Oceans

how plastic is affecting the oceans

Like many of you, I adore the ocean and all of the life that lives within and around it. Growing up in a small country town surrounded by beaches, the sea is part of my memories and essential to my life. Time spent at our beach shack fills me up with everything I need to stay well and happy. The sea has that effect on you. Without the oceans we would not be able to survive. While Australia is considered to be a continent, we are essentially a very big island, surrounded by numerous oceans and seas. We therefore have a very big role to play in the reduction of plastic pollution into these seas and oceans. Most people in our beautiful island home live along or nearby the coastlines, but you do not have to be near the sea to be part of the plastic pollution problem.

5 Gyres

I am very excited to be accepted into the 5 Gyres Ambassador programme and will be helping to educate, advocate and inform people locally around Australia, about the problems with plastic in our oceans, how we can reduce and prevent this, and why it is so important.

What is a Gyre?

A gyre is a large scale system of wind driven surface currents in the ocean. The 5 gyres referred to in the name of 5 Gyres are the five main subtropical gyres—located in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean—which are massive, circular current systems.
The build up of large amounts of plastics that form in the five subtropical gyres, are due to less winds and currents within these gyres. Basically, plastic that ends up in the ocean is caught within these currents. Once it is in the gyres, it takes at least 10 years for it to cycle back out again, that is if marine animals do not eat it first, or it sinks to the bottom of the sea floor.

It is a myth that there are simply large plastic piles in these gyres and none anywhere else in the oceans. There are concentrations of plastic in these gyres, but the plastic material within them is constantly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny pieces of plastic then spread out across all sea waters, making it very difficult to control. “In the ocean, plastic is less like an island, and more like smog” say 5 Gyres…

By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Is Plastic ALL bad?

I have struggled with this for many years as I rely on plastic to provide me with life saving devices such as my blood glucose monitoring systems, insulin pumps and medical supplies – without these I would be dead. In recent times I have started to look at all plastic packaging and containers in my life, to try and reduce what I can. There are many ways you can do this, including your personal care and beauty products, food packaging and household goods. Applying the refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, repair and rot approach to consumption is a fantastic starting point.

Plastic was first developed in the 1950’s and was considered to be a breakthrough invention. It was cheap to create, lightweight and could be thrown away after use. In more recent times we have come to realise that “away” does not mean gone…most plastic never really biodegrades—it stays in our environment for hundreds of years. This means that most of the plastic materials we have used in the past 100 years is still around in our environment today.

The Problem with Recycling

Even if you are an excellent recycler, most of the plastic you recycle is most likely not being turned into another product. Most plastics are made from fossil fuels. Due to low energy market prices and no real profitable market yet for selling recycled plastics, it is not financially viable for recycling companies in developed countries such as Australia to process it. Many countries therefore sell it to developing countries. The current crisis with China no longer accepting our recycling materials, is problematic. It might also be seen as an opportunity however, to create a new market and develop our own more sophisticated recycling industry.

Most Plastic in the Ocean Actually Comes From The Land

While many of us live along coastlines, you do not have to live right on the beach for your plastic waste to make its way to the ocean. A 2017 study from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that 95% of plastic in the ocean comes from land. This is because plastic flows in rivers from land to sea, in the runoff from our busy cities, and from maritime activities such as fishing and shipping. Even if you live nowhere near the sea, your plastic waste will most likely end up being part of the problem. Being conscious of your plastic waste on and around the sea if you are a fishing or boating person is very important.

How Large is the Plastic Problem?

In 2012, 5 Gyres established the world’s first Global Estimate of Marine Plastic Pollution, which was published in 2014. The group discovered that there were 269,000 metric tons and 5.25 trillion particles of plastic on the ocean’s surface. The 2017 United Nations Clean Seas Campaign estimated that there are 51 trillion microplastic particles in the ocean today—500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy.

What Happens with Microplastics?

Once plastic makes its way to the ocean, ultraviolet light makes it brittle and wave action crushes it, breaking it down into microplastics—pieces smaller than a grain of rice. Often this is eaten by marine life, but if not, these tiny pieces of plastic slowly settle down on the bottom of the ocean floor. After completing the first Global Estimate, 5 Gyres began to refer to these particles as “plastic smog.”

Are Compostable Plastic Bags OK?

On the positive side compostable plastic is usually made from plants rather than petroleum. The bad news is you need a large industrial composting facility to create the ideal conditions in which to break down these types of plastics. In fact, some recycling facilities consider PLA (made from corn) a contaminant to their recycling processes.
Choosing a “better” plastic is not really the solution.
Choosing reusable products that are plastic free is always the best option. Here is a guide on the best reusable bags.

Plastic Pollution is an Animal Rights Issue

Plastic pollution does not just affect the oceans themselves. They affect animals and our own health. Plastic in the ocean endangers more than 1,200 species of marine aninals from ingestion or entanglement. This includes turtles thinking plastic bags are jelly fish, to seals and other creatures being entangled in fishing line, to turtles with straws stuck in their noses, to seabirds who starve to death with their bellies full of plastic…it is not a pretty sight but it is very important that we see the impact our plastic waste is having on these beautiful creatures.

When it comes to human health, plastic pollution is a growing concern. In the ocean, plastic absorbs toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDTs—chemicals linked to endocrine disruption and even cancer.
One small piece of microplastic can be one million times more toxic than the ocean water around it; as it degrades, these plastic pieces also release toxic chemicals. These toxic plastics can move their way up the food chain and into the food you eat for dinner. In just one example, the team at 5 Gyres caught a fish in the middle of the North Pacific Gyre and found 16 pieces of plastic in its belly….

How are Plastic Pollution and Climate Change Connected?

99% of our plastic comes from fossil fuels. When you consider climate change, you probably think about all of the burning of fossil fuel by factories and cars, but we rarely remember that pretty much all of our plastic comes from oil.

The truth is: Plastic is connected to climate change and it pollutes at every stage—from materials extraction to product production to waste disposal.

At the moment one of the most cost effective ways to make plastic is through “cracking.” When land is fracked to produce fossil fuels, ethane gas is produced as a byproduct. Cracking plants—also known as “crackers”—convert ethane to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene plastic.
Plastic production is projected to triple by 2050.
Ethane is a greenhouse gas and contributes to global warming and air pollution. These plants are also often built near low-income communities and they create both environmental and social justice issues. When extreme weather events caused by global warming happen, flooding causes plastic to escape stormwater systems and enter our rivers, lakes and oceans.

How Can You Make a Difference?

There are many organisations and movements now encouraging you to go #plasticfree for a day, week, year—or forever.

You can go #plasticfree by refusing the top five sources of single use plastic:

  • plastic bags
  • plastic bottles
  • plastic take away containers
  • plastic takeaway cups, and
  • plastic straws.

In addition:

  • Bring your own shopping bag. Plastic bags are tricky to recycle and can clog up machines. They are very light so can be blown by the wind and water, and they look like jelly fish in the ocean so they’re mistaken for food by turtles.
  • Buy in bulk. Packaging now accounts for 25% of all plastic manufacturing. In particular at the supermarket, there can be layers and layers of packaging. Take your own containers and shop in bulk food stores for things like grain, rice, tea and nuts. Buying in bulk helps reduce the amount of plastic you consume.
  • Look at your personal habits. Things like your toothbrush, shampoo and beauty products, bottled sauces and spreads – all offer small places to make a difference. Look for soap bars rather than plastic bottled products, and glass jars and bottles, for example. Better still take or make your own products where you can. We can not all do that – I am personally very busy can can not make all of my beauty care products and sauce and jams – but you can look for packaging free or reusable options.
  • Wear natural fabrics.  Not only better for your skin, but better for the environment. All fabrics  shed fibres, which escape filtration in your washing machine and head out through wastewater into the ocean. Unlike wool, hemp and cotton, plastic microfibres from synthetic materials like nylon and spandex don’t biodegrade.
  • Carry a reusable water bottle. Seven out of every ten plastic bottles are thrown in the bin. Not only does a refillable bottle make good environmental sense, it’s good for your bank balance. Bottled water costs 2,000 times more than (filtered) tap water!
  • Refuse disposable straws. Plastic straws are not recyclable, end up in oceans, and kill marine animals. Unless you have a health reason to need to use a plastic straw, just don’t use one, or look for a reusable straw.
  • Refuse lids. Expanded polystyrene foam—better known as “Styrofoam”— is just not needed. Many lids are also made from this. If you forget your reusable cup, try to drink your coffee in the store out of a ceramic cup, or order your coffee without a lid.
  • Refuse any beauty or body products that use micro-beads – Microbeads in your skin care and body scrub products represent one of the hardest to monitor and clean, but easy to solve parts of the global microplastic problem. By banning plastic microbeads from personal care products, we would remove this source of plastic debris from our waterways. The US banned microbeads in personal care products in 2017, but as yet Australia is behind the game, relying on a “voluntary” elimination by producers.

If you must use a single-use item, choose a material other than plastic

There are times where you can not avoid single use items. In these cases try to look for options that can be recycled effectively. For example, aluminium is 100% recyclable and experiences no loss of properties or quality during the recycling process. Recycling aluminium also uses only 5% of the energy used to created new aluminium, and emits only 5% of the greenhouse gases.
Approximately 75% of the aluminium ever produced is still in use today.
Alcoa, the largest aluminium recycler in Australia, produces 55,000 tonnes of recycled aluminium annually at its Yennora recycling plant in western Sydney. They process half a billion used cans a year, recycling and returning them to a store shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days.
Together, we can make a difference— it is all of the small steps that matter. I look forward to learning more and sharing with you on my journey as a 5 Gyres Ambassador!
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