Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Proliferation Of Plastic In The World's Oceans - As Bad As We've Suspected

No photo description available.
Seal pup almost strangled with plastic detritus around his neck.

According to a WSJ Op-ed yesterday, many Starbucks' coffee fans are feeling pretty self-righteous lately that they're doing great by the planet in congregating there because the CEO replaced plastic straws (For recyclable lids).  The author then had to add the cynical stat that the removal of plastic straws really only takes care of about 0.025% of the 8 million tons of plastic dumped into the oceans each year.   That's about 200,000 tons. A lot, but no where near enough to stem the flood tide devastating sea life - and eventually...humans.

Just how bad, or rather "gross" is it? Some findings which were recently published by scientists from the UK and Australia in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds some light.  The teams analyzed 50 years of seabird research and described the problem as "widespread, pervasive and rapidly increasing."   Indeed, by 2050 the researchers forecast 99 percent of all seabird species will have consumed plastic.   For other marine species the proportion is about 95 percent.

Among the mind boggling finds in relation to the latter:

-  In March, a male Cuvier's beaked whale was found in the  Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic in its belly, including 16 rice sacks. (No straws)

- In April a female sperm whale was found dead off Italy's coast with 48 pounds of plastic in her stomach.

Some insight into just how much plastic blights and contaminates the world's oceans emerged in a 2014 seminal report by Marcus Eriksen and an international team of marine scientists. They calculated - get this- there are at least 5.25 trillion individual pieces of plastic floating in the oceans, for a total of 268, 940 tons. Also, more than 92 percent of these pieces are less than 5 mm in size or microplastics.  Larger items such as nylon fishing nets and debris from cargo ships add to this deplorable mass of human detritus.

What about the toll on marine life? It comes in two forms: 1) from entangled animals being strangled or drowning (see image of the seal pup above), and 2) ingestion of plastics leading to starvation.  Neither of these outcomes confers a very happy passing.  In respect of (i) a 2014 report from the World Animal Protection pegged at least 136,000 seals, sea lions, and large whales perishing from ghost -gear entanglement each year.

In regard to the second, millions of different animals, from whales to porpoises, to seals and fish as well as sea birds, consume thousands of pounds of plastic each year. These cause obstructions, stomach ruptures and starvation.  The latter because actual nutrients cannot be processed given the volume occupied by the plastic garbage.   Sea bird chicks (e.g. Albatross)  are especially vulnerable given the parents "unwittingly feed our trash to their young creating a false satiation"  according to Eriksen. That in turn leads to malnutrition.

Another aspect apart from the malnutrition is poisoning, given ocean plastics contain a brew of toxic chemicals.  According to Stephanie Borrelle, a postdoctoral researcher in New Zealand, these toxins come from both the manufacturing process and pollutants that adhere to the plastic surfaces. The combination can affect "reproductive output" as well as "biophysical function".   Borrelle adds that the population degradation also occurs in the more general context of climate change.

What about plastic production? Is there any end in sight?   Not really. In 1950 global plastic production was approximately 2 million metric tons. By 2015, that had ballooned to 380 million metric tons, according to an assessment in Science Advances.  See, e.g.

There can be little doubt humans are also caught up in this toxic web as well. As we consume fish, crabs, lobsters etc. which have ingested the plastic (especially  microplastics), they become part of our body chemistry as well  - and not in any good way.

In a way it would mark an "ecological karma".  Humans produce our own weight in plastics each year. How much ends up in the oceans is still a matter of debate but scientists in one study estimated between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (in 2010 alone).  Three fourths of this waste comes from uncollected litter, the rest leaks from dump sites.

Can anything really be done to address the problem?  According to Marcus Eriksen, the most significant difference cam come via prevention as opposed to removal. In his words:

"If we focus on stopping the flow from land to sea and better regulate fishing gear and maritime activities it would solve the problem once and for all."

The question is whether there is the will to do it.

See also:

by Sonali Kolhatkar | May 31, 2019 - 6:40am | 

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