Articles Environmental Oceans

Is ocean plastic disappearing into the food chain ?

Annual Long Island Plastic Cleanup

Hands up if you think we use too much plastic ?

Hands up if you think there is too much plastic waste in our environment ?

Hands up if you think there is too much plastic waste in our oceans ?

I’ve often wondered what happens to plastic when we dispose of it. In the past we would have sent this straight to landfill, and of course nowadays certainly in the UK we have different coloured bins that allow plastic to be sorted, re-cycled where possible but we still don’t take enough care when disposing of plastic. Even when we send plastic to landfill because it can’t be re-cycled the plastic still needs to break down. Out of sight, doesn’t mean we have dealt with the problem of disposing of our waste. Whether we send our plastic waste to landfill sites or into the oceans it must and will eventually breakdown, and gradually plastic waste will disintegrate into millions of tiny microscopic particles that linger in our soil or are disappated in our oceans.

Dr Dave Morrit of Royal Holloway has recently been looking at what happens to plastic as it makes its way into the environment, his team undertook a study on the River Thames in London. The results are worrying, he found that three quarters of the fish he sampled contained plastic in their gut. For those of us who are vegan or vegetarian this may not be a concern for us, but of course we all know lots of people whom we care for who are not vegan or vegetarian, so what will the long term impact be to them of eating animal based food that has been regularly consuming plastic ? This is an issue that is important to all of us, because whether we are vegan, vegetarian or meat eating we all contribute to plastic waste that goes into our environment.

Find out more about Dr Dave Morrit and his work

Research has recently been published in the Science journal which quantifies just how much plastic is making its way into our oceans. The research estimates that there are currently between 100 million to 150 million tonnes of plastic waste floating around, or breaking down in our oceans. The research shows that based on current practices related to consumption and disposal around 5 to 12 million tonnes of new plastic waste make it into the oceans each year. What ratio of plastic waste in the oceans versus tonnage of fish and microscopic marine life in the sea do we think is acceptable and safe ?

When many of us think about plastic, we tend to think in terms of food packing waste, but plastics are used in so many more things. Micro-plastics are small plastic particles about 1mm to 5 mm in diameter, they are found in many human made products such as cosmetics, clothing and as a by-product of industrial processing. A large portion of micro-plastics also occur as larger plastic components break down or ‘weather’ in our environment. Once the plastic gets to this small scale size, it can be ingested by micro-plankton which of course we all know are the basis for all life in our oceans, and much of the oxygen that is released into our atmosphere. We don’t yet know the full effect of this but doesn’t it seem obvious that these micro-plankton will become weakened, even poisened ? What will be the long term effects of this on other marine life including related species e.g. sea-birds. ?

So, what can we do to avoid the use of plastics ? There is no doubt that it is going to be difficult, everything is geared up towards it use – including food packaging, sanitary products, cigarette cellophane wrappers, distribution, manufacturing, clothe making, cosmetic production, house building, health-care. You name it, there is probably plastic caught up somewhere in the process. But demand creates supply. If we can somehow lessen the demand for plastic based products, then the supply will lessen at the same time. Think about the products you buy, the food packaging you consume and how you dispose of the plastic that you use. Try and buy local, from farmers markets or try to re-use what we already have. There was a time before our dependency on this oil based economy that we didn’t depend on plastics. Could we go back to that ? I think that for the sake of our environment, we need to start to make the transition.

Click here to read the Science journal

Note: The science journal is a subscription based service. You will need to pay to access this journal.