Today, on World Oceans Day, we need to talk about plastic. But to talk about the plastic problem, we first have to understand its scale. We've covered the dangers plastic ties can pose to seals, how plastic bags look like food to sea turtles and how over a million seabirds are killed by it each year. But, the reality is that marine plastic is a much larger problem than this.
How much bigger? Get ready to have your mind blown.
Poisoning our oceans
Right now there are more than 51 trillion pieces of microplastic in our oceans - that's more that 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy.
These plastic particles affect every part of our oceans. It's contaminated the darkest reaches of the Mariana Trench, over 10km deep. It becomes frozen into icebergs and Arctic sea ice. Plastic is even affecting volcanoes, creating new rocks that are going to scar our world for millions of years.
90% of all seabirds have consumed plastic - in 1960 it was less than 5%.
Sea snakes, turtles, otters, penguins, seals, crutaceans and manatees - 50% of them have consumed plastic!
There is a tendency to focus on large pieces of debris that we can easily see - after all, these are the ones that we see strangling and choking our wildlife. The hidden, and far more serious danger are 'microplastics' - tiny bits of plastic too small to see, small enough to pass through our commercial water filters, and tiny enough to eaten by plankton and become embedded in the tissues of other animals.
Microplastics are formed from the breakdown of larger plastic items by UV radiation and mechanical processes at sea, but the vast majority of it comes directly from our homes. Tiny polyester fibres from our clothing, microbeads from our beauty products and dust from our carpets are all too small to be filtered out of our waste water, thus ending up in our ocean and beginning their journey up our food chain.
All this plastic moves up the food web, from plankton up into larger animals. As it moves up this chain, toxic chemicals get more and more contentrated. Guess who is on top of this chain? We are - and our pollution is affecting us!
Recent studies show that shellfish eaters consume as many as 10 000 pieces of plastic during a year. Up to 35% of commercially caught fish in the English Channel and Northern Pacific were found to be contaminated with plastic. 18% of tuna and other staple fish in the Mediterreanean Sea were polluted by plastic. Even inert substances, such as our culinary sea salt, have been contaminated by plastic.
A large animal like us has no trouble passing these bits of microplastic. The danger is that chemicals in plastic leach out over time, with these toxins building up in our own tissues and the meat of the food we consume.
The above table is adapted from the Plastics in Seafood report by Greenpeace USA. We highly recommend giving this report a read; it details the ways seafood becomes contaminated, the way plastic and toxins move up the food chain and its inevitable impact on human health. Microplastics are not known to pose a health risk to humans in present-day concentrations, but as time progresses toxins will concentrate higher on the food chain and this will eventually affect our health.
The problem with recycling
The term "recycling" is misleading when applied to most plastics. "Recycling" implies that the product is reintroduced to the economy as a fresh version of itself. E.g., glass bottles are recycled to make new glass bottles, aluminium soda cans are recycled to make new soda cans and recycled newspaper is used to create new newspaper.
However, when plastics are reprocessed their molecular bonds break down, leaving them of poorer quality and unsuitable to be used for the same purpose they were originally intended, so it is repurposed for a different (and often disposable, eg. refuse bags) product. Proper recycling is expensive, and it is usually more profitable to simply produce fresh plastics from oil than to make the effort to reuse them. As such, almost all plastic is on a downward spiral that will eventually lead to a landfill or the environment.
Local upcycling efforts
As citizens of Planet Earth, we can all do our part to ensure our oceans are preserved for future generations. Some awesome Capetonians are going above and beyond – let’s have a look at some of their initiatives.
The Ecobrick Exchange - Turning waste into preschools
The EcoBrick Exchange is a pioneering initiative that aims to reduce non-biodegradeable waste and build up South Africa's infrastructure at the same time. It is based around the concept of the "EcoBrick", a disposable PET plastic bottle stuffed full of non-recyclable plastic waste, like juice cartons and chocolate wrappers. These EcoBricks are collected and used to build childcare facilities. Their last project was to build upgrades to the Penguins Pre-School in Port Elizabeth. They are currently working with the City of Cape Town to to construct an ECD centre entirely out of sustainable materials.
Plantastic - Creating bags and bangles from plastic litter
Plantastic’s tagline is: "Where the world leaves trash, we find treasure!" They make bangles and backpacks from plastic bags that they pick up in streets, oceans or from beaches – and call them Plantangles. A Plantangle's value lies simply in its presence - it is tangible and wearable proof that this piece of plastic is NO LONGER OUT THERE! It represents one less plastic bag washing into our ocean. They use Plantastic’s Geotagging app to take a photo and geotag the plastic bag's location. Each Plantangle comes with its own webpage, showing where the plastic bag was picked up, the geolocation on a map and a photo of the Plantangle.
7SeasRope - Fashionable bracelets from marine trash
7SeasRope was started by people who have spent their whole life working with and living by the ocean. On a daily basis there is a near endless tide of man-made debris polluting the water, shoreline and the effects it is having on the wildlife can constantly be seen.
7SeasRope is a company that conducts beach cleanups with the Gansbaai community and volunteer groups to remove this debris and help keep our coastlines the way they should be, and also to give the animals that inhabit them a safe place to live in.
Recycled Flip Flop Sculptures - Stylish sculptures from discarded soles
Davis Ndungu is a skilled sculptor who uses his talents, a sharp knife and some sandpaper to bring African art to life. Old flip flops, found washed up on the beaches of Southern Africa are his raw material of choice. These pieces of art, sold in the V&A Waterfront's Watershed are keeping polyurethane rubber out of our oceans, and creating employment in communities in need.
Spar Group - Linking marine health and consumers
Under the leadership of a dedicated sustainability manager, the SPAR group has poised itself to become a leader in sustainable practices, particularly in the Western Cape. SPAR actively encourages their franchisees and customers to adopt sustainable practices. E.g., by offering free reusable bags in return for disposable ones, creating recycled art to decorate Christmas trees and creating awareness and by supporting our seal disentanglement efforts. We are excited to see where SPAR's responsible retailing developments takes it in the future.
The future of our oceans
As amazing as many of our local efforts are, we should all be striving for a world where these organisations are not necessary and the prospect of wasted plastic is no longer present. Whether plastics are elimated completely, replaced by biogradeable alternatives or redesigned in a way that allows 100% recollection and recycling, one thing is clear: we need to eliminate disposable plastic items and remove the threat of hidden microplastics.
Many visionaries are looking at ways to permanently save our oceans from the dangers of plastics. These are the organisations looking to a future where plastic never enters our oceans, and were the 51 trillion pieces already polluting it are removed:
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is driven to create a "circular economy" where plastic products are designed specifically to be recycled and reused. They work directly with huge international enterprises to make this goal a reality. The founder, Ellen MacArthur, is an around-the-world sailor who has experienced oceans plastics first hand and was responsible for some of the world's most influencial plastic audits.
The Ocean Cleanup is a visionary project with the goal of building a 1 000km long floating catchment that can remove plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. Despite criticism, their initial prototypes are showing promising results and creating excitement for a plastic-free ocean.
The Ocean Conservancy works with communities to develop sustainable, scientific solutions to the ocean's largest threats. To date, its most successful project is the International Coastal Cleanup which has attracted 12 million volunteers - the largest environmental volunteer effort of all time.
The United Nations Environmental Programme's Clean Seas campaign serves to connect smaller organisations wanting to make a difference in the ocean waste problem. Its research has made awareness tools available to the public that truly put the plastic problem in perspective - even we use their infographics.
Upcycling is a temporary measure
Currently, it is cheaper for companies to simply make new plastic from crude oil than it is to recycle. We can make a change by demanding sustainable alternatives and so drive the market to develop the technology needed to solve this problem.
How can you make a difference?
Change starts with our shopping habits - let's keep that in mind this World Oceans Day.
Support local initiatives that are taking action at a local level to solve the problems of marine plastic - if we all make a local change, it adds up to a global one. The Two Oceans Aquarium has a few initiatives that we encourage members of the public and South African businesses to be a part of.
These campaigns include our flagship Rethink the Bag project, aiming to completely eliminate single-use plastic bags from South African life. Straws Suck, Balloon Busters, Tap In, Bin Your Butts and Cut A Loop are all programmes that you can easily implement at home or with your kids. Why not commit voluntarily to one of these?
The Two Oceans Aquarium is also directly involved in the conservation of sea turtles, rescue and monitoring of Cape fur seals and other marine creatures - many of which have become injured or have ingested plastic waste. We always appreciate public support for these activities, and you can learn more about how to support our conservation efforts here.
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