Plastic waste: ‘This is our global wake-up call. The red flag is waving’
Earlier this year, a young Cuvier’s beaked whale washed up dead on a beach in the Philippines with a shocking 40kg of plastic in its digestive tract. Tragically, this is just one of the many whale fatalities within the past year caused by plastic pollution.
In November last year, a sperm whale was found dead in Indonesia with two flip-flops, 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags and four plastic bottles totalling nearly 6kg of plastic in its stomach.
The previous June, a pilot whale was found dead in Thailand after eating 80 plastic bags weighing a total of almost 8kg, and in April a sperm whale was found dead washed ashore after swallowing 29kg of plastic debris in Spain.
While almost all sea creatures are impacted by plastic in our waters, the magnitude of plastic pollution is startlingly clear in the premature deaths of these whales.
The issue starts with mass production of plastics. While plastic was first produced in 1907, it was not until the 1950s that the rapid growth in global plastic production was first realised.
Since then, the annual production of plastics has increased nearly 200-fold to 381m tonnes in 2015 – roughly equivalent to the mass of two-thirds of the world’s population. Upsettingly, every year between 4m and 12m metric tonnes of plastic waste end up in the ocean, enough to cover every foot of coastline on the planet.
Some put their faith in recycling systems to help with the plastics issue; however, the reality is, less than one-fifth of existing plastics are recycled globally. The rate of recycling is even more shocking when one isolates individual regions.
For example, Americans recycle just 9pc of their plastic trash. Moreover, China announced in 2018 that it will no longer accept most foreign recycling material (it previously took up to 40pc of US recyclables). This means tonnes of recycling material are simply ending up in landfills or being burned.
‘We must move past the shock factor’
Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than fish. The impact of plastic pollution goes beyond marine species; it also affects land creatures that rely on healthy oceans, including people. We consume food sourced from the ocean, and increasingly this means that people are eating ocean plastic, too.
The facts are alarming, but this is our global wake-up call. The red flag is waving. We must move past the shock factor of these whales’ deaths and do what is necessary to ignite action.
The good news is that change is taking hold. People are beginning to open their eyes to the plastic pollution crisis we’ve created. More than 60 countries worldwide have introduced bans or taxes to curb single-use plastic waste, and that number is growing. Through those actions, alongside increased consumer awareness, people everywhere are beginning to reduce the demand for plastics globally and force companies to look for more ocean-friendly options.
Eight things you can do to help
Choosing environmentally friendly items – such as reusable water bottles and cloth shopping bags, and remembering to bring them with you – can slowly help course-correct to improve ocean health. Taking ownership of our own waste and making sure it is properly disposed of is an important way to make a difference for ocean health.
Listed below are simple ‘Blue Habits’ we can collectively take on to help stop such environmental devastation brought on by plastic pollution.
- Refuse single-use plastics that you do not need (eg straws, plastic bags, takeout utensils, takeout containers)
- Buy and carry with you reusable grocery bags, produce bags, bottles, utensils, coffee cups and dry-cleaning garment bags
- Pack lunches/snacks in reusable containers or wraps instead of plastic bags
- Bring your own reusable containers to restaurants for takeout or to pack leftovers
- Vote for legislation that bans single-use plastic use
- Use a laundry bag, ball or filter to capture and reduce microfibres that make their way to wastewater and into rivers and the ocean
- Participate in (or organise) a clean-up of your local beach or waterway.
- Support organisations addressing plastic pollution including Oceanic Society, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, Plastic Soup Foundation and others
As these and similar habits take hold, they will help motivate businesses and governments to do their part to reduce plastic waste, too. The important thing is that we all do something to address this global crisis before it worsens.
Join us and the millions of people already taking action for ocean health at BlueHabits.org.
By Lindsay Mosher
Lindsay Mosher is Oceanic Society’s Blue Habits project manager. She has a diverse background with an MA in conservation biology from Miami University and a BA in journalism from Ithaca College. She is deeply passionate about ocean issues and has been working to advance global marine conservation for the past five years.
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