Somewhere between 60% and 80% of all marine litter is made of plastics.
100 and 150 million tons of plastic waste is estimated to be afloat in our seas and oceans. This number increases by 6.5 million tons each year. Approximately 13,000 plastics per square metre of high seas exist according to data from UN’s Environment Programme. These are distributed everywhere via oceanic currents.
Plastic waste remains in the sea for hundreds of years due to high degradation temperatures and high resistance to UV lights and bacteria; threatening people, nature and ecosystems.
Plastics break down into smaller pieces called microplastics (less than 10 mm in diameter) when subjected to physical erosion. Microplastics are often synthetics from textile products, catalysts from detergents, cosmetics and chemical production, plastic bags (including 100% degradable plastic bags), thorn off rubber particles, and whetted-whittled plastic pieces. These microplastics are transported to seas and oceans via sewer systems and rain water.
Why are plastics problematic?
Threat to natural environments and ecosystems:
- Floating microplastics are swallowed up by various organisms. Poisonous materials within become part of the food chain when those organisms are consumed by others, and have the potential to reach human beings. Separating these invisible plastics from microorganisms in marine environments and cleaning the ocean of this ferocious pollutant is nearly impossible. • Macroplastics reaching marine environments cause great suffering and death to marine mammals, sea turtles, reptiles, fish and sea birds that mistakenly ingest them as food. For example, sea turtles may eat plastic bags that resemble jellyfish; birds may feed on, or feed their chicks with plastics that look like fish eggs and crabs. Stomachs full of plastic litter, marine organisms suffer from nutrition deficiencies and death from starvation. The ingested materials may also cause death by suffocation if they obstruct the respiratory tract (click to see a documentary of thousands of Albatross chicks mistaking plastic litter for food and the fatal consequences).
- Marine mammals and sea turtles sometimes get stuck in the wayward fishing nets. While not always fatal, this can cause great distress and suffering to the animal. (Click to see the rescue of a sperm whale from fishing nets)
Threat to human health:
- Plastic litter in the sea and along the coastline can spread poisonous chemicals hazardous to human health, cause injuries and spread infectious diseases.
Negative effects on the economy:
- Cleaning of marine environments and coastal areas can be very costly; especially in faraway locations where access is limited and infrastructure is lacking.
Polluted beaches and seas do not attract tourists. Decrease in tourism means less income for coastal communities.
- Plastics and other marine litter adrift in the sea can cause costly, sometimes irreparable damages to ships by tangling with the propeller or the anchor.
- Each loss or damage to the ecosystem and man-made services by litter, marine or otherwise, also damages people’s livelihoods.
Travels long distances:
Plastic and other solid wastes can be transported great distances by ocean currents, waves, winds and streams. This litter may even rich virgin soil that’s never seen the presence of humans.
Plastic litter can threaten the nature, ecosystem and human life for decades, or even centuries.
• Fishing line: 600 years
• Plastic bottle: 450 years
• Disposable diaper: 450 years
• Rubber soles: 50-80 years
• Nylon fabric: 30-40 years
• Plastic bag: 10-20 years
Difficult to track:
It’s nearly impossible to track a plastic litter’s place of origin, life history and the reason for its final destination so we have no way of knowing its course and destiny.
Out of sight, out of reach:
Microplastics are largely invisible due to their small size. Heavy macrolitter remains underwater and out of sight. Removal of either is next to impossible.
What is the source of plastics and other solid waste on beaches and in the sea?
Most litter along the coasts and in the sea come from land-based sources. These are:
• Improper disposal of solid waste
• Inadequate waste management practices – collection, transportation, treatment and discharge inefficiency,
• Discharge of untreated sewage – inadequate treatment facilities or strong gales
• Irresponsible discharge of industrial waste – production surplus, junk, packaging material or raw materials, bottles, caps, toys, thermoplastic resin and untreated waste water
• Touristic and recreational activities – plastic wastes (plastic bags, plastic packaging materials, bottles, caps, toys, balloons, etc.) and other solid waste left on the beach, intentionally or otherwise
Land based waste ends up in the sea via streams, waterways, sewage exits, floods, wind and tides.
Marine activities are also important sources. These are;
• Commercial fisheries activities – discarded fishing gear and nets, styrofoam tangled in nets.
• Commercial or non-commercial shipping (large cargo ships, passenger ships, ferries) – wastewater discharge and cargo falling overboard.
• Pleasure crafts (small vessels used for fishing, yachts, water sports) – discarded bottles, wastewater, fishing gear, sports equipment, etc.
• Overseas oil and gas platforms – leftover drilling equipment, pipes, barrels, packaging material.
• Aquaculture facilities – Leftover net cages, construction material, feed sacks.
What’s worse, garbage from ships is often thrown overboard. Inadequate waste management practices in ships, harbours and marinas worsen the situation.
What are the responsibilities of governments and municipalities in reducing plastics and other solid waste?
• Adopt laws and resolutions that will reduce plastics and other waste.
• Develop efficient waste management methods.
• Encourage and facilitate recycling. Producers must have responsibility over recycling.
• Raise awareness.
• Plastic bags must be taxed or banned.
What are the responsibilities of producers in reducing plastics and other solid waste?
• Making recyclable products and packaging materials.
• Taking responsibility for recycling.
• Producing multi-use items instead of single-use products.
• A deposit system must be in place.
What are the responsibilities of the general population in reducing plastics and other solid waste?
• Terrestrial and marine ecosystems are strongly connected.
• Do not throw garbage anywhere except in appropriate garbage disposal units. Do not litter the streets, riverside or the sea.
• Buy products with least amount of packaging material.
• Consume less to reduce plastic waste.
• Avoid single-use materials like paper cups and plates. Avoid single-use tableware and cutlery.
• Avoid using nylon plastic bags; prefer reusable bags, mesh bags and paper bags.
• Prefer recycled material.
• Choose clothing and fabric made of natural materials as synthetic material degrades and adds to the formation of microplastics over time.
• Do not let free-floating items like balloons and sky lanterns fly away as they become waste on land and seas shortly afterwards.
Adopt responsible practices in fisheries, yachting and various water sports.
• Environmentally responsible marinas must be supported.
• Inform family and friends about keeping oceans and coasts clean.
• Clean up beaches and other places.
Some countries are taking precautions to reduce plastic consumption. For example, Ireland has banned free plastic bags in 2002 and plastic bag consumption was down by 90% in 2012.
Some municipalities in Turkey banned the use of plastic bags in local bazaars and businesses. ‘No Nylon Bags’ campaign by the Akyaka municipality and the following statement on January 1st, 2012, banning the use of nylon bags by bazaars and organizations is a good example. Several women supported the campaign by learning how to make mesh bags from a special course provided by the municipality. Similarly, Seferihisar municipality banned the use of nylon bags in organic bazaars and necessitated the use of paper bags and mesh bags. If the work of these municipalities is adopted by others, millions of nylon bags will be stopped short of harming the nature.