Poisoning Paradise: Oceans of Toxic Plastic
Are we poisoning our oceans and ourselves with plastics? Oceans of Plastic is the third of the “Poisoning Paradise” series.
Plastic Oceans, a recent report on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV’s Catalyst programme, explores the latest science and its global implications for wildlife and humans.
The video opens on Australia’s iconic Lord Howe Island with evidence from the stomachs of dead birds (quotes below are from the transcript):
This is a dead flesh footed shear water. What you’re about to see may make you feel sick to the stomach. But if you care about your own health and you like the odd bit of seafood this is essential viewing.
As the bird’s stomach contents soon reveal, plastics are the culprit:
It’s estimated that 3.5 million pieces of new plastic enter the world’s oceans daily. Carried on global currents they accumulate in huge circulating gyres, causing countless injuries to marine life along the way.
… Plastics don’t biodegrade but over many years in the sun and elements they break down into smaller and smaller pieces until they’re so small they’re hard to see.
The numbers indicate the extent of this global phenomenon:
… It’s estimated fish in the North Pacific now consume up to 24,000 tonnes of plastic a year.
… As one predator eats another contaminants bio-magnify. This means the most vulnerable animal to the effects of toxic plastic contamination is the one at the very top of the food chain. Us.
Observationally we do not find full plastic bottles or cans or glass bottles in South Australia and I would likely attribute that to the container deposit scheme that they have there. The waste that’s associated with the beverage industry comprises about a third and some estimates are as high as a half of the marine debris that we find globally.
However, introduction of a national container deposit scheme (CDS) is quite contentious in Australia, with only South Australia and the Northern Territory having current CDS laws.
Toxins in the food chain
The Plastic Oceans Foundation warns: “Plastic particles in the oceans attract toxins. These enter the food chain; we are at the top of that food chain.” British broadcaster David Attenborough, who’s produced numerous TV programmes about nature, explains:
In his Facebook link to the foundation’s website, Martin Bohle, from the Environment section of the European Commission’s Research Directorate-General, stresses the urgency of the problem:
When we trash our ocean, we’re trashing the very life-support system that provides us food, water and oxygen. Marine debris isn’t just an eyesore, it’s dangerous. It degrades the ocean environment, harms countless marine mammals and birds, and poses serious risks to our personal and economic health.
Great Ocean Patches
There is a widespread belief that our oceans contain islands of floating garbage. This mythology does not match the science, as the USNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) point out in their Marine Debris website:
“The name ‘garbage patch’ has led many to believe that this area is a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items such as bottles and other litter – akin to a literal blanket of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs. This is simply not true. (…) Much of the debris mentioned in the media these days refers to small bits of floatable plastic debris. These plastic pieces are quite small and not immediately evident to the naked eye.”
If that’s the good news, a short online visit to NOAA will give a quick overview of the bad news. Nevertheless they have a positive message:
No matter who you are, YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!
One of the US organisations working in this area is Ocean Conservancy whose target is Trash Free Seas. There should be similar local action happening in your country or region and if so, please let us know about it in the comment section.
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