Which of the following objects could you find in an albatross's stomach?
a) disposable lighters
b) squid beaks
c) bottle caps
d) plastic toys
e) all of the above
Guess what? It´s sad but true! It´s all of the above. Although albatrosses prefer squid and fish eggs, they will eat any floating objects including plastic trash.
𝐸𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑝𝑙𝑎𝑠𝑡𝑖𝑐 𝑡𝑟𝑎𝑠ℎ 𝑝𝑟𝑒𝑣𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑠 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑚 𝑓𝑟𝑜𝑚 𝑏𝑒𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑎𝑏𝑙𝑒 𝑡𝑜 𝑑𝑖𝑔𝑒𝑠𝑡 𝑓𝑜𝑜𝑑, 𝑠𝑜 𝑡ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑦 𝑤𝑖𝑙𝑙 𝑑𝑖𝑒!
All the displayed objects were found in an albatross stomach. This albatross is just one example. According to UNESCO, one million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals (like mammals, fish, sharks, turtles) are killed every year due to plastic. (1)
When I saw this display at the Kilauea Lighthouse and wildlife refuge in Kauai, I was asking myself how serious are truly the consequences of our plastic waste for the sea life, the environment and ourselves and started deeper research.
So let's look at some facts. The first global analysis of mass-produced plastic was made in 2017 by US academics and resulted in overwhelming and shocking numbers. The mass production started in the 1950s and since then 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, led the project. He and his colleagues published their results in the journal ScienceAdvances on July 19th, 2017. (2)
“As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment,'' says their study report. Because plastic does not decompose, it may stay in our oceans or landfills for hundreds or even thousands of years. That means if the plastic growth continues, Roland Geyer and his team predict circa 12,000 metric tons of plastic waste will end up in landfills and nature by 2050.
The effects of plastic in the oceans are immense and form so-called “garbage patches”. The largest accumulation of plastic waste is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii. In a Science report from March 2018, an international team of scientists predicts that “at least 79 (45–129) thousand tonnes of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million km2; a figure four to sixteen times higher than previously reported.” Those are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. (3)
That makes a lot of people think about the fish to plastic ratio. Is the amount of plastic waste in the ocean growing faster than the fish population? According to a December 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. “Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute.” (4)
Is recycling plastic the solution? It seems to be a natural step in the right direction but “It reduces future plastic waste generation only if it displaces primary plastic production”, says Roland Geyer and his team in their study. Recycling plastic is a very complex process because not all plastics can be recycled together. In addition, not every recycling center recycles all types of plastics and a lot of it simply goes to the landfill as well.
A new trend in the sustainable fashion world is to recycle PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles by turning them into new garments, but this is not as sustainable as it seems. Even though most people agree that it is better to recycle plastic than producing more, many people argue that wearing plastic is simply as bad as drinking from water bottles.
The fact is that every time we wash synthetic clothing made out of polyester or acrylic for example, invisible microplastics are released in the water. The same happens with clothes that are made from recycled polyester. Most of these microplastics don´t get filtered by the washing machine filters and finally make their way into the ocean. A scientific report from April 2019 states that microfibres have been found in the Pacific Ocean, even in the deep sea sediments of the Arctic. “Textile fibres were also found in fish and shellfish on sale for human consumption, sampled from markets in Makassar, Indonesia, and from California, USA.” (5) Microplastics released through the washing machine is considered the primary cause of microplastic pollution in the ocean.
The only solution to stop the growth of plastic waste and its consequences is to minimize our plastic waste. This contains single-use plastic packaging like plastic bags, containers, straws, cutlery and balloons. Instead, we can replace them with reusable grocery bags and reusable bottles for water and coffee and bring reusable cutlery to work or the next summer picnic. As much as possible we should try not to release balloons in the air as they are very likely to end up in the oceans. It´s also good to remember that plastic has a light weight and easily flies away in the wind from recycling trucks, landfills and bins. It´s best to weigh down light plastic as much as possible. Biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes and straws, vegan dental floss, reusable beeswax wraps and sustainably made clothes are just a few more examples of actions that we can take.
The answer to the question “is this the best we can do?” is always no. But we also shouldn´t underestimate the potential of small everyday actions! So let´s start together by sharing this information and start to implement it in our life!
(1) Unesco Website: Facts and figures on marine pollution http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/ioc-oceans/focus-areas/rio-20-ocean/blueprint-for-the-future-we-want/marine-pollution/facts-and-figures-on-marine-pollution/
(2) Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law; Research Article: Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made; 19.July.2017 https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782
(3) L.Lebreton, B. Slot, F. Ferrari, B. Sainte-Rose, J. Aitken, R. Marthouse, S.Hajbane, S. Cunsolo, A. Schwarz, A. Levivier, K. Noble, P. Debeljak, H. Maral, R. Schoeneich-Argent, R. Brambini, J.Reisser; Scientific Report :Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic; 22 March 2018 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22939-w
(4) Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Publication: The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics & catalysing action; 13. December.2017 https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics-catalysing-action
(5) Francesca De Falco, Emilia Di Pace, Mariacristina Cocca, Maurizio Avello; Scientific Report “The contribution of washing processes of synthetic clothes to microplastic pollution”; 29. April.2019 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43023-x