Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: How Much Plastic Is In The Ocean?
Marine plastic pollution has now become one of the biggest problems we have to deal with as a society.
Through mass improper disposal of non biodegradable plastic, our oceans are now filled with plastic debris, as well as microplastics which can enter marine food chains.
In this blog, we're going to look at exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, the current rate of plastic entering the ocean as well as the science behind plastic pollution.
How Much Plastic Is In The Ocean?
It is estimated that 150 million metric tonnes of plastic waste are now in our total marine environments, with the current rate of plastic entering our oceans being 8 million tonnes every year.
The reason plastic pollution is such a crisis is that conventional plastics do not have the ability to biodegrade, resulting in the formation of microplastics as opposed to natural components.
Conventional plastic has two main characteristics that cause problems on an international scale: conventional plastic is produced from fossil fuels, as well as the just mentioned fact that they cannot biodegrade.
There are seven main types of conventional plastic in mass production, and all of them have a number assigned to them from 1-7.
Each number dictates the ease of which each plastic is recycled. PET is number one, meaning it is the easiest of all conventional plastics to recycle.
Plastic, as we know it, was invented in 1907 with the invention of bakelite.
Plastics are materials made up from polymers, which are long chains of repeating sequences known as monomers.
Names for the individual kinds of plastic take the name of the monomer, and in crude terms, add the prefix 'poly' to represent the polymer aspect.
For example, polyethylene is a plastic made up of the monomer 'ethylene', which link together through the process of polymerization to form the polymer 'polyethylene'.
Plastic additives are also added to these polymers to give certain wanted characteristics, including antioxidants to stop the plastic from reacting with oxygen, which can increase shelf life of food contained in plastic containers.
Plastic can enter our oceans in a few different ways, with over half of all plastic waste entering the aquatic environment coming from just four countries in Southeast Asia.
Plastic enters the ocean from a few different locations including illegal dumps, which don't deal with plastic waste properly and efficiently.
But just because of many tonnes of plastic waste entering from developing countries in Asia, does not mean they are responsible for the plastic waste.
Much of the plastic waste entering our oceans actually comes from developed countries such as the UK.
It is cheaper and more efficient for developed countries to export plastic waste, as well as keeping their recycle rates up to the standards demanded by governing bodies.
In 2018, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic waste to different countries to deal with. The problem with exporting waste in the current system, is that no concern is given to where the plastic waste actually ends up.
It is common for plastic waste being exported to the other side of the world for recycling purposes to end up in illegal landfills, as well as illegal incineration plants.
The current system in the UK rewards exporters, and does not encourage domestic recycling. Domestic recycling in the UK gets less financial support from the government for attempting to recycle waste at home, compared to exporters.
Package recovery notes, or PRNs, are how the UK recycling system works with regards to payments.
A recycling plant who are recycling plastic domestically get the value of the output of recycled plastic, as opposed to the value of the total input.
Let's imagine that a UK recycler, who attempts to recycle the plastic domestically, gets given 1 tonne of plastic waste to recycle.
Through the recycling process, a certain amount of plastic will be successfully recycled, whilst the remaining plastic will sent to landfill or incinerated.
If the recycling success rate is 50%, meaning the recycling plant manages to successfully recycled half of the one tonne, they will only get paid for the half tonne of outputted recycled plastic waste.
In contrast, recycling exporters get paid for the input, as it is assumed that 100% of the plastic waste leaving the country will be recycled.
This clearly a daft notion, as what chance do countries, with less developed waste infrasturcure than the UK's, have of getting a 100% recycling rate, when only 9% of all plastic waste has ever been recycled.
It's obvious that the UK is following an out of sight, out of mind policy when it comes to dealing with plastic waste.
Marine Plastic Pollution
The real victims in all of this, are the marine animals who will suffer as a result of coming into contact with plastic debris. With more and more species of marine animals being exposed to plastic debris, more and more marine creatures will die as a result.
As marine animals come into contact with plastic debris, it is possible for them to mistake plastic debris for food, and ingest the plastic.
Once in the animal, plastic debris can cause death by suffocation, causing internal bleeding and inadvertent starvation.
The starvation is a result of the animals stomachs filling with plastic, which leads the animal to believe they are full of nutrition, when infact they are just full of plastic waste.
This leads to the animal not feeling the need to hunt, which means they slowly starve to death without knowing it.
One of the most famous marine animals, the turtle, now has a 22% chance of dying from coming into contact with just one piece of plastic debris. This number rises to 50% when turtles come into contact with 14 pieces of plastic.
Marine Microplastic Pollution
It is not only large pieces of plastic debris that are in our oceans. Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are below 5mm in size in all dimensions.
Primary microplastics are pieces of plastic that are formed below the upper limit of 5mm, whereas secondary microplastics are formed from larger pieces of plastic breaking down over time.
The main concern with microplastics is now how widespread they have become, in both the natural environment and areas of human population. Through the process of microplastics forming, whether secondary or primary, marine food chains are put at risk.
Microplastics enter the marine food chain at the lower trophic levels, ususally with zooplankton.
The trophic transfer of microplastics is the process of microplastics accumulating at each stage of the food chain, from predators ingesting prey with microplastic content inside them at the time of ingestion.
For example, krill eat zooplankton.
When krill ingest zooplankton with microplastics inside of them, all the microplastics in the zooplankton now enter the krill. This process repeats, all the way up to larger marine animals such as seals and large fish.
As a result of this process, humans are now effectively eating the plastic waste that we disposed of improperly into the ocean.
Microplastics are constantly being researched as a matter of urgency, due to a lack of understanding around the health risks they pose.
However, research has been carried out that shows immune cells that come into contact with microplastics in blood, die three times quicker than immune cells that had no contact with microplastics.
If microplastics, at some point in the future, reach levels in our blood which render our immune systems compromised, people could get extremely sick from everyday common colds.
It is not only marine animals that are affected by plastic pollution. Coral reefs that are exposed to plastic debris have an 89% risk of being diseased, as opposed to coral reefs not affected by plastic pollution having just a 4% chance of being diseased.
The reason for this massive jump in disease rates amongst coral reefs comes from plastic abrading the coral, which is when plastic debris punctures the 'skin' of the coral.
Plastic debris in the ocean is the perfect setting for persistent organic pollutants to bind to, and spread the disease they are carrying wherever the plastic debris goes to.
Persistent organic pollutants are ever present in the natural environment, so there is not really a way to remove them in any significant capacity.
When plastic debris makes contact with coral reefs, and abrades them, these pollutants are released into the coral, and spread their disease throughout, slowly killing the coral.
Coral reefs are crucial for the marine environment as a whole. As nitrogen fixers, coral reefs convert nitrogen on a molecular level into nitrogen products that other plants can use to grow and function.
These plants are then fed on by smaller fish and organisms which are the base of the entire marine ecosystem. From then on, it will be a knock on effect of each trophic level being potentially wiped out as they won't have anything to feed on.
Without coral reefs, coastal regions are also exposed to natural disasters such as tsunamis. 95% of wave energy is reduced by coral reefs being present, which shows just how important they are to slowing down waves.
Throughout this blog, we've talked about how much plastic is in the ocean, the current rate at which plastic is entering the ocean and a few other expanded points on the effect of plastic on marine ecosystems.
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At LFHP, we think it's important to research and look into the reasons behind our values. Providing our range of eco-friendly gifts is what we love to do, and we think explaining the reasons behind our motivations is key to us, and to you.
Finding creative alternatives to single use plastic packaging is a key part of our business, and hopefully a welcome aspect of our eco-friendly gifts.