Plastic waste has reached catastrophic proportions in the oceans and it is increasing further still in volume at an alarming rate despite interventions, according to new research published in the journal Science.
“To estimate the effectiveness of interventions to reduce plastic pollution, we modeled stocks and flows of municipal solid waste and four sources of microplastics through the global plastic system for five scenarios between 2016 and 2040. Implementing all feasible interventions reduced plastic pollution by 40% from 2016 rates and 78% relative to ‘business as usual’ in 2040,” explain the scientists behind the study.
“Even with immediate and concerted action, 710 million metric tons of plastic waste cumulatively entered aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems,” they elucidate. “To avoid a massive build-up of plastic in the environment, coordinated global action is urgently needed to reduce plastic consumption; increase rates of reuse, waste collection, and recycling; expand safe disposal systems; and accelerate innovation in the plastic value chain.”
In light of such findings environmentalists worldwide are calling for urgent actions, including the ban of single-use plastic products and other measures. Yet governments in many countries appear to have remained indifferent about this pressing issue, judging from the continuedly high rates of plastic pollution.
Encouragingly, several countries are making concerted efforts to reduce plastic pollution. England, for one, introduced a small 5p surcharge on disposable plastic bags in 2016 after it was found that more than seven billion bags were handed out by seven major retailers in the country in 2014.
The move served to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags, which paid off within months. In just half a year the number of single-use plastic bags fell to half a billion from seven billion with the weight of saved plastic bags amounting to 300 blue whales, the largest animals on earth.
Yet that does not mean that England has solved its plastic waste problem. Far from it. Four years on, people in the country still use an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds and 316 million plastic stirrers each year.
Great quantities of these objects, which account for a massive volume in total, end up in the environment, including the sea.
Banning the sale of these items will lessen the volume of plastic waste in England considerably, according to Environment Secretary George Eustice. “Single-use plastics cause real devastation to the environment and this government is firmly committed to tackling this issue head on,” Eustice said.
“Our 5p charge on single-use plastic bags has successfully cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets, we have banned microbeads, and we are building plans for a deposit return scheme to drive up the recycling of single-use drinks containers,” the politician observed.
“The ban on straws, stirrers and cotton buds is just the next step in our battle against plastic pollution and our pledge to protect our ocean and the environment for future generations,” he added.
Straws, cotton buds and stirrers cannot be recycled. Most of them are discarded after a single use whereupon they may end up in the sea where they break up into small fragments.
Once there, they are often mistaken for food by seabirds and marine animals. When plastic litter builds up in these animals’ stomachs, they can starve slowly to death. Numerous birds have been found with bottle caps, straws or even toothbrushes protruding from their decomposing remains on beaches.
On Lord Howe Island, on the east coast of Australia, hundreds of shearwater chicks are being unintentionally fed bits and pieces of plastic by their parents which scoop up floating plastic debris from the sea because they mistake them for fish.
“These birds are generalist predators,” explained Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist. “They’ll eat just about anything they’re given. That’s what’s allowed them to thrive — a lack of pickiness,” she noted. “But when you put plastic in the ocean, it means they have no ability to detect plastic from non-plastic, so they eat it.”
A number of chicks were lucky because they were saved by marine biologists before it was too late. The scientists employed a process called lavage to move plastic out of the chicks’ digestive systems. They used tubes and flushed the baby birds’ stomachs with sea water and let them regurgitate the plastic fragments.
However, such attempts at saving wild animals from the scourge of plastic waste will remain an uphill battle so long as massive amounts of new waste keeps entering the oceans.
Global efforts to reduce such waste has barely had any noticeable impacts yet. Sixty percent of plastic waste in the oceans comes from just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. Several other countries in the region also contribute their own share of plastic waste.
And these countries have done far too little so far to alleviate the problem. Some of them have made halfhearted efforts to limit the use of certain disposable plastic items like plastic bags, but far more will need to be done to rid the oceans of excess waste in coming years.