What to Do about Plastics and Microplastics at Sea?

Our foundation has been invested in the subject of plastics and microplastics for years. We got involved by monitoring seal, dolphin, whale, and other animal suffocation and death from plastics. This was followed by large scale campaigns and projects aiming to raise awareness. Oceans and seas around the world are now facing a dire threat: plastics! Plastics remain in the seas and oceans for a very long time, longer than can be expressed by mere decades. Microplastics, often particles from degrading plastics in aquatic environments, is the most recent topic of scientific debate. These particles can reach humans through the food chain. Plastics less than 10 mm in diameter are called microplastics.

Approximately 2% of the 300 million tons of plastics produced annually – 6 million tons of plastics are thought to reach the seas. Some of this plastic waste discarded or transported to the sea ends up in the open ocean, gathered by oceanic currents into forming gyres. The great Pacific garbage patch will forever be remembered. The voyage from their source to the gyres can last for years and all the while plastics degrade by friction, sunlight and bacteria, turning into microplastics with a radius less than five millimetres. It takes years for plastics to dissolve in seawater. These plastics, especially plastic bottles, are mistaken for fish and swallowed by dolphins, whales and seabirds, suffocating them to death.

We have observed considerable amounts of plastic bags and other plastic waste in the stomach contents of stranded whales and dolphins from our coasts. We know that some of this plastic waste comes from marine vessels. For example, half of the 10 kg of plastic waste from the Black Sea comes from foreign vessels. 70% of the waste is land-based, transported via rivers and streams. This serious matter has been highlighted by the UN, designating the theme of the 2018 World Oceans Day as ‘Clean our Ocean’, focused on cleaning up plastic from the oceans.

Everyday at least 10 trucks worth of plastic waste reaches our seas from rivers, land and ships, meaning thousands of tons of plastic waste end up in our seas every year. They are so widely distributed that it’s possible to find plastics anywhere from the most productive 0-200 metre water column to 2000 metres of depth near Anaximander Seamounts. Highly processed plastic waste with much higher resistance to elements remains in the sea for a very long time before it starts to degrade.

We don’t know exactly how much plastic ends up in the seas each year but we have to start by separating the garbage at its source to reduce the waste in our seas and on our coasts. Next step is to reduce the amount of plastics intentionally discarded in the sea by stricter implementation of Marpol 73-78 (The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) by the authorities. This is a call to action for all relevant authorities. There is insufficient control and surveillance in our country for the recycling and reclaiming of plastics. Food and beverage companies using plastic boxes, bottles and packaging material must keep track of and reclaim these materials but this is not realized or enforced competently.

We have been doing various activities concerning plastics each year as a foundation ever since we have begun the EU-funded Marlisco Project in 2014. Our 2019 simultaneous beach cleanup project on Samsun (Black Sea), Adana (Mediterranean Sea), İzmir (Aegean Sea) and İstanbul (Marmara Sea) beaches gathered tons of plastics in a grand scale event but plastics will not disappear by collecting them. Taking care of plastic waste as they are produced and raising awareness of the general population- which is what we’ve been working at. Our articles in national and international magazines and shared content in social media are met with great interest.

We have personal responsibilities as well. We must reduce the amount of plastics in our daily lives and strive to use glass or recyclable materials. Plastic waste and other pollutants in our seas and on our coasts from Hopa to İskenderun gives way to unsightly shores, deteriorating biodiversity, and ill-repute for our once-treasured beaches of stellar reputation for cleanliness. Relevant municipalities and ministries must take responsibility in keeping our marine environments clean: Wastes must be regularly collected – not deposited in the sea, and plastic bags must be banned or regulated.

Even with the rising popularity of plastics as a topic of discussion and debate, general mobilization of people and awareness campaigns about plastics and microplastics are necessary. The decision is ours: leave a healthy and clean ecosystem for future generations or let them swim amongst the plastic waste.