Plastic Circulating Endlessly in World's Oceans
03/26/11 10:49 AM
03/26/11 10:49 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
HONOLULU, Hawaii, U.S., Mar 24, 2011 (IPS) - That plastic bottle or plastic take-away coffee lid that has
20 minutes of use can spend decades killing countless
seabirds, marine animals and fish, experts reported here this
On remote Pacific island atolls, diligent albatross parents
unknowingly fill their chicks' bellies with bits of plastic
that resemble food. The chicks die of malnutrition, and when
their bodies decay all those plastic bottle tops, disposable
lighters, and the ubiquitous bits of plastic detritus get
back into the environment in a cruel perversion of
There is now so much plastic in the oceans it is likely that
virtually every seabird has plastic in its belly if its
feeding habits mean it mistakes plastic bits for food. The
same is true for sea turtles, marine animals or fish,
Northern fulmars, a common seabird numbering in the
millions, have a collective 45 tonnes worth of plastic bits
in their bellies, estimates Jan Andries van Franeker, a
biologist with the Institute for Marine Resources and
Ecosystem Studies at the University of Wageningen in
At least 95 percent of fulmars in the North Sea where van
Franeker has been working for three decades have one to
several dozen bits of plastic in their stomachs. The same is
true for related species like the tiny Wilson's storm
petrels, which unknowingly transport an estimated 35 tonnes
of plastic from their wintering grounds in the North
Atlantic to breeding grounds in the Antarctic, he says.
"If a seabird's feeding habits mean it could mistake plastic
for food, then it will likely have plastic in its stomach,"
he said in an interview at the weeklong Fifth International
Marine Debris Conference, which ends Friday in Honolulu,
It has been 10 years since the last international marine
debris conference and the hope is that industry, civil
society, researchers and policy makers will find common
ground on the strategies and best practices to assess,
reduce, and prevent the impacts of marine debris.
"I sometimes have this kind of dream or nightmare where
those fulmars drop all of that plastic on an audience in big
conference room like this," van Franeker told IPS. "It would
make a very clear statement."
It is a statement that needs to be made with the escalating
problem of the world's oceans being filled a staggering
amount of plastic, fishing gear, and all other kinds of
debris. There is no accurate accounting of exactly how much
but it appears to be in the tens of millions of tonnes each
year and is mostly from land-based sources.
A 2006 United Nations Environment Programme estimate
suggested every square kilometere of world's ocean has an
average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on the
surface. A walk on an ocean shoreline anywhere in the world
will provide ample evidence of the scale of the problem -
unless it was recently cleaned up.
The Ocean Conservancy, a U.S.-based NGO, has been leading
beach and shoreline cleanups around the world for 25 years.
Over that time, nearly nine million volunteers in 152
countries have cleaned up and catalogued 66 million
kilogrammes of trash, according a new report released here
The top three trash items collected by number of items found
were cigarette butts, food packaging and bottle caps or
lids. Plastic bags, bottles and straws or stirrers also made
the top 10.
"People don't realise that the cumulative impact of marine
debris is a major issue for the oceans," said Achim Steiner,
executive director of the United Nations Environment
UNEP and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) are conference co-sponsors. (Full disclosure: UNEP
provided travel funding for IPS to attend the conference).
Steiner said marine debris is an "out of sight, out of mind"
type of problem but noted there was new science showing that
tiny plastic particles called microplastics may be leaching
endocrine disruptor chemicals. affecting the health of
marine species and possibly humans.
"We need to become less reliant on plastics," he told
conference participants in a video statement.
About 260 million tonnes of new plastic is made each year.
Plastic does not really biodegrade, it only breaks down into
smaller pieces until it is microscopic - microplastic
particles - that can remain in the environment for hundreds
In 1950, just five million tonnes of plastic was
manufactured globally. Today each person in developed
countries uses about 100 kgs of plastic annually while less
developed use 20 kgs and that number is growing rapidly.
Steiner said policies like South Korea's mandatory Extended
Producer Responsibility System (EPR) are not only part of
the solution but a new source of jobs and income. The EPR
system requires manufacturers and importers to recycle a
certain amount of their products. In the five years since
the programme's launch in Korea, six million tonnes of waste
has been recycled, including 70,000 tonnes of plastic,
producing a financial benefit of over 1.6 billion dollars.
Keeping plastic trash out of the ocean is as simple as
setting up a mandatory deposit system with a high enough
value on anything plastic to ensure it is too valuable to
throw away, says van Franeker. Germany, the Netherlands and
the Nordic countries all have deposit systems for plastic
bottles and recycling rates are better than 95 percent as a
"Degradable or compostable plastic should be banned. The
bio-plastics have as much plastic as those made from oil,"
The so-called degradable bio-plastics simply break down into
microplastic particles faster than traditional plastics. "We
might not be able to see them with our eyes but the plastic
is still there," he added.
The industry pushes degradable and compostable plastics so
that one-time short term use of plastic can continue, he
said. "One time use of plastic is simply unsustainable."
Van Franeker is not anti-plastic. "It is a wonderful
material. Real plastic is valuable. It can be made to be
safe and reuseable."
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