Plastic Waste in the Sea – an acute Problem!
By Ralph Kratzer
Last weekend I was swimming in the sea. During the days before there were heavy storms on the open sea of the Eastern Mediterranean. Violent waves reached the coast of Northern Cyprus. Therefore, unfortunately, I realized that the water was full of plastic waste. This represents a worldwide growing threat to the sea and the marine life.
Strolling through the average supermarket, shoppers find literally hundreds (if not thousands) of items to make their lives easier. Individually wrapped snack cakes, plastic baggies to store sandwiches for lunch, unbreakable soda bottles, and disposable razors, diapers, and shampoo bottles. Especially the bags we use to carry our goods home are always plastic over here.
To humans, these are items of comfort, if not necessity. But to marine animals, they can be a floating minefield.
Plastic, whether it be a container, a wrapper, or the product itself, has become an everyday part of our lives. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, plastic is also the material diabetics use for their disposable syringes, arthritic patients have for their replaced hips and construction workers wear to protect their heads.
But when plastic reaches our waters, whether it be plastic bags or drifting fish nets, it poses a threat to the animals that depend on the oceans for food. To a sea turtle, a floating plastic bag looks like a jellyfish. And plastic pellets, the small hard pieces of plastic from which plastic products are made, look like fish eggs to seabirds. Drifting nets entangle birds, fish and mammals, making it difficult, if not impossible to move or eat. As our consumption of plastic mounts, so too does the danger to marine life.
Before the days of plastic, when fishermen dumped their trash overboard or lost a net, it consisted of natural materials – metal, cloth or paper that would either sink to the bottom or biodegrade quickly. But plastic remains floating on the surface, the same place where many genuine food sources lie, and can remain so for 400 years. Plastic is durable and strong…
But how would a plastic bag make it into the sea? In Cyprus everything is thrown away carelessly, a huge amount of plastic waste is lying either in a ditch or on unauthorized dumps. When heavy rains and storms arrive in winter, they sweep the streets and the landscape clean and also overloaded sewers. After floating out to sea, the debris is later blown back onto the shores.
In a more direct route, boats may dump their trash right into the sea. In the past, this has been the main cause of plastics in the sea. In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage was being dumped into the sea every year. That’s more than 1.5 million pounds per hour. More than 85% of this trash was estimated to come from the world’s merchant shipping fleet in the form of cargo-associated wastes. And these figures are nearly 40 years old! It may not have become better since then as the traffic on sea has increased…
Plastic soda rings, bags, sachets, styrofoam particles and plastic pellets are often mistaken by sea turtles as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world’s approximately 250 species of seabirds.
Wildlife is not the only area to suffer from the effects of marine debris. Plastic bags are the leading external cause of marine engine damage.
A lot of laws have been passed worldwide restricting the dumping of plastics into the sea. The plastics industry has also stepped in, taking measures to reclaim plastic resin pellets that often get lost during production or transport. Plastics manufacturers are also investigating ways to create “degradable” plastics. Although all materials eventually break down, a plastic soda ring can take up to 400 years to biodegrade. So researchers are working with two types of degradable plastics: photodegradable and biodegradable.
Photodegradable plastics are made to become weak and brittle when exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods. Biodegradable plastics are made with cornstarch, so bacteria and other organisms eat away at the plastic, breaking it up into smaller pieces. Neither of these methods, however, solve the problem of plastic in the sea, since they are only broken up into smaller pieces, creating an even more dangerous situation for animals that mistake smaller plastic pieces for food.
Perhaps the most effective method right now for solving the persistent plastic problem is beach cleaning. Coastal clean ups should be organized in order to collect trash that has washed up on the beach or has been left by beachgoers to be carried out by the surf and remove it from the marine cycle.
What you can do?
1) Look for alternative materials or avoid excessive packaging when deciding on purchases. Use paper bags, milk and juice in cardboard containers, and cloth diapers. Whenever possible insist on paper bags and glass bottles.
2) Recycle. I know this is a topic which has not yet arrived in Cyprus. But a primitive form of recycling also is to use plastic bags more than one time to carry home your shopping. Later take them as a bin liner, don´t buy extra garbage bags.
3) Educate others about the problem of marine debris, enhancing “voluntary compliance through awareness.”
4) Get involved. Locate or start a coastal clean up in your area.