Plastic waste in our oceans
Plastic waste in our oceans is a major environmental problem and a disaster for all marine life, humans and birds. Often it is ingested, and then accumulated in the bodies of marine creatures where it is incorporated into their tissues. Most humans, seabirds and marine life have eaten plastic and it remains in their stomachs as it leaches toxic chemicals into the their tissues. Through our casual disinterest and focus on convenience and profit we are poisoning, killing and starving sea creatures. We also ignore the effects of this poisoning on human health when we eat seafood.
Plastic waste often enters storm drains, rivers, and eventually the ocean. Single use plastics make up half of this waste. The wind blows plastic rubbish out of littered streets and landfills, as well as trucks and trains on their way to landfills. It gets into rivers, streams and storm drains and then rides the tides and currents out to sea. Litter dropped by people at the beach is also a major source.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, or break down through natural decomposition but degrades by breaking down into increasingly smaller particles, referred to as microplastics. Critically, even smaller particles, called nanoplastics, have been found in personal health care products, and are contributing to the destruction of the ocean.
In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws and soda bottles—are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.
- 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris now exist in the ocean.
- 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year. That amounts to being more than one million bags used every minute. Single-use plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes. One percent of these are recycled.
- 50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away. Examples: drinking straws, personal sized water bottles, soda bottles, coffee cup lids, plastic drink containers, plastic cutlery and take-out containers (to name a few).
- 91 percent of plastic is not recycled!
- Bioplastics can be better for the environment than conventional non-biodegradeable plastic, which can take up to 10,000 years to decompose in landfills. However this is only the case if bioplastics are designed to biodegrade and only if they end up in the conditions that will facilitate breakdown, such as industrial compost facilities. If biodegradeable plastic ends up in the soil or in the oceans, it won’t break down very quickly and will persist for a much longer period of time.
- Synthetic fabrics when washed add plastic fibers into the drains which will ultimatimately reach the ocean. A fleece jacket will loose 2000 peices.
- 100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement and these are just the ones found.
- 80 percent of all seabird species, 22 percent of cetaceans, all sea turtle species and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies. Adult salmon eat 90 microplastic pieces a day while humpback whales take in 300,000. They ingest plastic, mistaking it for food.
- Plastic chemicals can be absorbed by animals. Some of these compounds found in plastic have been found to alter hormones or have other potential health effects. These chemicals are landing up on our dinner plates.
- By eating seafood humans can consume 11,000 tiny particles every year. Micro plastics have been found in 90 percent of popular brands of bottled water. Plastic can even cross from the blood into the human brain or cross the placenta to adversely affect unborn babies.
Ocean plastic is disrupting the marine ecosystem and oxygen cycle
Plastic does not biodegrade, but it does break down into tiny toxic little bits that pollute the soil and our waterways. The sun’s rays have capabilities in its ultraviolet light (UV light) and infrared radiation which brings about the incorporation of oxygen molecules into the plastic, a process known as oxidation. As more and more oxygen intermingles with the polymer in the plastic, it becomes brittle and easier to break into ever diminishing pieces. This process, called photodegration, is accelerated by physical friction, such as being blown across a beach or rolled by waves. Floating beneath the surface of the water, to a depth of ten metres, was a multitude of small plastic flecks and particles, in many colours, swirling like snowflakes or fish food. A recent study conducted at the Vancouver Aquarium, documented approximately 4000 particles of microplastics per cubic meter of the Straight of Georgia seawater. Other researchers have found six times more plastic than plankton in the ocean. A range of animals throughout the marine environment, including corals and zooplankton, consume these particles. Recent studies have found that microplastics can indeed be passed up the ocean food web to accumulate in fish and other larger marine animals. Plastic particles become coated with algae and bacteria. The fish are attracted the bioouled plastic because the algae gives off sulfuric smell. The human population are eating toxin-saturated plastics these contaminated marine organisms. As plastic to plankton ratio increases, the deeper the penetration of plastic into the food web. One study estimates that returning salmon ingest up to 90 plastic particles a day — particles that might contain endocrine inhibitors and carcinogens. Also plastic in the ocean act as a chemical “sponge” that soaks up and stores potentially harmful chemicals.
The only good news is that are some microorganisms which are able to metabolise it when is becomes small enough and convert it to carbon dioxide (CO2) or absorb it into their own biomolecules. However this is an incredibly lengthy process, often taking as much as 50 years or more for the sun to completely break down the plastic and for the microbes to assimilate the polymer molecules. Molecules of conventional plastic are also gigantic, making them extra difficult to digest. Each is composed of literally thousands of repeating units called “monomers” so that the weight of a finished polymer molecule is typically over ten thousand (for comparison, the weight of a single water molecule is eighteen). The simplest is polyethylene (e.g., grocery bags, ketchup and shampoo bottles), which is just an enormous string of carbon atoms with attached hydrogen atoms.
The oceans are truly the life blood of all life on this planet.
- oceans cover ¾ of the planet and
- hold 97% of the earth’s water and
- ocean’s phytoplankton produce ½ the world’s oxygen
As well as producing half of world’s oxygen, phytoplankton provide the primary food source for the zooplankton and together, they form the base of the oceanic food chain. Much larger zooplankton, fish and mammals all depend on these plankton for their survival. These phytoplankton also play a critical role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere and releasing oxygen into the water, but they depend on the marine ecosystem. At least 20% of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton in the Salish Sea (formerly called the Georgia Straight). Whale excrement is responsible for fertilizing phytoplankton, so when there is the fewer whales there are the less phytoplankton.
Eliminating point of sale plastic bags
One plastic bag can kill numerous animals because they take so long to disintegrate. Maybe 1000 years. An animal that dies from the bag will decompose and the bag will be released because they are not digestible and they don’t decompose, resulting in another animal eating the same plastic bag.
Victoria City Council voted to prohibit businesses from offering or selling single-use plastic bags to shoppers. In January 2019, the law forces businesses to instead provide paper bags (sold for 12 cents each) and reusable bags ($2 a pop).
Banned plastic bags also should include the ones labeled biodegradable which are made from fossil fuels. UN report on marine plastics confirms that most plastics labeled as biodegradable don’t break down in the ocean. biodegradable plastcs require long-term exposure to high-temperatures (around 122F, or 50C), like those found in large municipal composters, to actually break down.
Some communities in BC implementing a ban of point of sale single use bags and plastic straws The plastic industry is fighting back through the courts on this municipal legislation being not constitutional. We think that British Columbia and Canadian governments need to implement laws to control plastic. Meanwhile the public needs to become more aware of the problem and lobby their politicians.
The Bangladesh government was the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002. Entire state of California and Hawaii also have banned single use point of sale plastic bags. Such a ban has also been applied in countries such as Rwanda, China, Taiwan and Macedonia. Other countries in Western Europe impose a fee per bag. Bans, partial bans, and fees have been enacted by some local jurisdictions in North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Myanmar. At least thirty countries are trying to limit some plastic bags. See the map below.
Eliminate other single use plastics
Banning plastic bags is not enough, we must consider all single use plastics. It is expected with the doubling of plastic production every 20 years, that oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
- Ban the sale of individual sized water bottles eliminated in Concord, Massachusettes
- Ban plastic straws, this was done in Manhattan Beach, California. There are alternatives to plastic straws.
- Ban disposal plastic cups and cutlery. France accomplished this. Styrofoam food storage items were banned in San Francisco. Any Styrofoam items readily breakdown on the marine coastlines and are mistakenly eaten as food.
One ton of recycled plastic saves 5,774 kWh of electricity, 548 gallons of oil, 98 million BTU’s of energy and 30 cubic yards of landfill space. Only 25% of the plastic produced in the U.S. is recycled. Recycling of plastic remains problem as it is labour intensive to sort. Plastic Bottle Institute of the U.S devised a classification of six types of plastic have a number inside triangle. Some types of plastic such as polystyrene are uneconomical to recycle. These would include foam peanuts, food containers, plastic tableware, disposable cups, plates, cutlery, vending cups, compact-disc and DVD boxes. Thermoplastics can be re-melted and reused, and thermoset plastics can be ground up and used as filler, although the purity of the material tends to degrade with each reuse cycle. Examples include: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Reduce your carbon footprint
At the present trend in 2050, 15 % of the world oil will used by the plastics industry. Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. It only takes about 9 plastic bags for the equivalent of the gas required to drive one kilometre.
How can we reduce our plastic waste?
Here are some suggestions to help:
- Contact politicians at all levels to encourage legislation banning single-use plastic bags, small water bottles, straws etc. See our list on Contacts page.
- Shop with reusable tote bags and skip the plastic produce bags.
- Choose foods and goods with plastic packaging.
- Drink tap or filtered water and carry a reusable water bottle.
- Say no to plastic straws and coffee cup lids; bring your own coffee mug or thermos.
- Avoid taking food out of restaurants and supermarkets in Styrofoam containers.
- When storing food, use wax-paper instead of plastic bags or plastic wrap.
- Don’t purchase toiletries that contain micro-beads.
- Recycle all plastic including plastic bags.
- Bring a bag to collect rubbish and plastic when on walks.
- Participate in local trash clean-ups and also beach clean-ups to prevent plastics from getting into out oceans.
A Plastic Ocean
Plastic Oceans Foundation is trying to make us aware by producing a film “A plastic ocean” showing massive problem that is affecting 600 marine species. This injested plastic is producing toxic chemicals which is of a concern for human and other animal health. Watch the film trailer.
Microplastics found in supermarket fish, shellfish : researchers say it’s too soon to say what impact this has on food safety
Tiny particles of plastic that pollute oceans and lakes enter marine organisms, not just their guts but also their tissues,
Microplastics absorb or carry organic contaminants, such as PCBs, pesticides, flame retardants and hormone-disrupting compounds of many kinds.
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