Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: The Effect Plastic Has On The Ocean Community
Plastic pollution has become a huge problem for our environment and our wildlife. Marine communities including animals and plants, have been hugely affected in a negative way.
With plastic becoming a very real, and ever more potent risk to marine lives, let's take a look at some of the data behind marine plastic pollution. We're going to look at the data behind marine plastic debris, and the consequences that plastic is having on our ocean communities.
Marine creatures such as seabirds, whales and turtles are becoming increasingly affected by marine plastic pollution. 52% of all sea turtles worldwide are predicted to have consumed plastic. This shows the global scale in which the plastic crisis is taking place on.
Once plastic debris is in the ocean, marine animals such as Shearwater Birds can mistake it for food. Sooty Shearwaters, as well as other marine predators, connect the smell of plastic with their food source. This is due to plastic debris being an excellent place for algae numbers to bloom.
Algae produces DMS, or dimethyl sulfide, as a result of their natural processes when in the ocean. Krill feed off these algae, which means that krill are associated with the odor produced by the DMS. Unfortunately, the seabirds rely heavily on their sense of smell, and so when hunting for krill, they inadvertently ingest the plastic debris that is in close proximity to the krill.
As well as DMS being incorrectly associated with plastic, marine predators sometimes cannot tell the difference between plastic and non-plastic. This confusion again leads to inadvertent consumption of plastic the mistake for prey.
This results in many marine animal population numbers dwindling. Animals such as the previously mentioned Sooty Shearwater have been found in their hundreds, starving due their stomachs being so full of plastic they cannot take in any food. Parents unknowingly feed their chicks plastic from their own stomachs, as they do not understand it is not viable food.
Fortunately, the team of microbiologists who were studying a specific group of Sooty Shearwaters managed to give them a second chance. They did this by physically flushing their stomachs with sea water, sometimes finding hundreds of pieces of plastic inside of the birds.
As well as consuming plastic, entanglement is a huge problem as well. This study from Exeter University shows the devastation to lives of turtles who are caught in plastic items such as six-pack rings, nets and fishing lines.
Ingesting just a single item of plastic has a 22% chance of killing a sea turtle. This number rises to 50% when a turtle has come into contact with 14 pieces of plastic.
It takes 6 months for a 10 x 10cm sheet of plastic to pass through the digestive tract of a turtle.
As well as negatively affecting the turtles ability to digest valuable nutrients it needs to survive, this could also be hugely uncomfortable, to say the least. This shows how plastic can damage the turtles for long periods of time, before they either luckily live, or die from the plastic causing the problem.
When plastic comes into contact with coral reefs, the results can be devastating. Reefs that fall victim of plastic pollution are 89% more likely to be diseased. This is compared to reefs with no plastic having only a 4% chance of being diseased.
With an estimated 11.8 billion items of plastic debris scattered across the Asia-Pacific region, the area the research was carried out in, it's becoming more likely for reefs to be negatively affected by plastic.
Floating plastic debris is the perfect place for disease carrying microbes to thrive. Pollutants such as PCB's and dioxins are ever present in the environment, and they can bind with plastic debris. These pollutants are known as 'persistent organic pollutants'.
There are two main ways in which coral becomes damaged by plastic. The first is known as coral abrasion. Plastic abrades the corals, piercing the 'skin' of the coral, and allowing infection to spread inside the coral reef. The pollutants that were present on the piece of plastic that pierced the coral, are now able to spread throughout the reef.
The second way is produced from plastic debris blocking sunlight reaching the coral. Without the required energy from the sunlight, coral reefs no longer can carry out the processes it needs to survive.
Coral reefs are important for several reasons. Let's start with how coral reefs are important to humans. Reefs act as a natural buffer against waves, storms and floods. As coral reefs become diseased, they can no longer protect shorelines as well as they could when fully healthy.
Communities who live on the coast, both humans and animals alike, rely on coral reefs to protect them. Without protection, their homes, businesses and infrastructure is more likely to be hit by natural disasters.
For many people who live in coastal areas in developing countries, there is often no man made barrier to protect them. Developed countries have infrastructure to protect their coastal citizens from storms, such as flood barriers and other defences.
Corals are nitrogen fixers. Nitrogen fixing, in the context of coral reefs, means coral reefs convert molecular nitrogen in the ocean into different products that can be used by other plants. This is an important process, and without it, the marine plants that rely on coral reefs fixing the oxygen will also face the risk of not surviving.
The process of converting molecular nitrogen into usable products such as ammonia and ammonium, is known as 'fixing' the nitrogen, hence the name.
When corals become diseased through coming into contact with plastic, their ability to fix nitrogen becomes impaired. This puts the whole marine ecosystem at risk.
How Does Plastic Enter The Ocean?
Marine plastic pollution is the result of improper disposal of plastic, on an international scale. One of the main areas that plastic enters the ocean from is Southeast Asia. With just four countries being responsible for over half of the ocean's plastic, this geographical area must find ways to reduce the amount of plastic being wrongly disposed of.
This is not to blame those countries. Much of the waste entering the ocean from countries such as Malaysia and Thailand is imported from developed countries such as the UK.
For the UK, it is cheaper to export their plastic waste than to process it internally. The problem is, that once the waste has been exported to countries on the other side of the world, there is no follow up on whether the waste is actually being recycled.
Clearly, there are huge amounts of waste sent for recycling that are not being recycled. In 2018, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of waste to be processed abroad.
Countries such as Malaysia have been found to contain many illegal recycling plants, illegal dumps and illegal sites at which plastic is burnt.
Due to China's national sword programme created in 2018, China would now longer accept plastic waste below a 99.5% purity mark. From the 1980s, China had been importing half of the world's plastic waste, due to it being far cheaper to import plastic than to create it from scratch.
Since the ban on plastic below 99.% purity, countries such as Malaysia began to take in more plastic to replace China as a destination for plastic waste to be exported to.
Shortly after this increase, the Malaysian government started to crack down on imported plastic. They raid ports in order to find plastic that has been smuggled in, and send it back to the countries that sent them.
Recently, Malaysia sent 42 containers filled with plastic waste back to the UK. The environment minister of malaysia refuses to accept that her country should be the dumping ground of the world, and rightly so.
Microplastics Entering The Ocean
As well as larger pieces of plastic debris entering the ocean, there are many chunks of plastic that are much smaller.
Pieces of plastic below 5mm in size are known as microplastics. They can be much smaller than 5mm, but no bigger to be classified as such.
Microplastics can either be primary (produced to be smaller than 5mm), or secondary (formed from plastic debris larger than 5mm in size). Because conventional fossil based plastic cannot biodegrade, it just breaks town into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, eventually forming microplastics.
The most common way of microplastics entering the ocean is from surface runoff.
Microplastics created by surface runoff are commonly formed from road marking paint being eroded by cars driving over them. Each time the paint is eroded by the tyre of a car, microplastics are separated from the main bulk of the paint marking. These tiny plastic particles then enter the drainage system by the road, eventually ending up in freshwater environments.
Microplastics are potentially dangerous, and have been linked to serious health defects. However, more research needs to be carried out to fully understand what effect microplastics have on health in both humans and animals.
Through the trophic transfer of microplastics, plastic content accumulates at every trophic level of the food chain. In large predators such as seals, microplastics traces are significant.
With this blog, we've talked about what effect plastic has on both marine animals, as well as marine plants in the form of coral. There needs to be an urgent slow down on the amount of plastic we are creating as a society, and not just plastic waste.
Environmentally Friendly Gifts
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