Soon, more plastic than fish in our ocean?


This post is a summary of a talk given on the 14th of December 2017, to the members of SAVE, with the support of Institute Bon Pasteur. I would like to thank both SAVE & IBP for this opportunity to deepen and share about a subject that is dear to my heart. SAVE is a Mauritian animal welfare group, you can find them on facebook . You can learn more about IBP work on  http://institutebonpasteur.com.

 

‘There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050’ – Ellen MacArthur Foundation(*1) and the World Economic Forum, in their report ‘The New Plastics Economy’

We’ve probably all heard this statement – and while some might argue about the exact numbers presented in the report, we can all agree that this statement highlights a very real problem: how something we use every day can have such an impact on our environment…

But…is plastic really problematic ? I mean, we use it every day… If it was THAT bad for the environment we would know it, right? We wouldn’t use something that problematic so frequently, right ? [Ok, before going any further let’s remember that there are many types of plastic and that not all have the same exact properties (*2), but here for the sake of simplicity we’ll talk about plastics in general ].

First, it is said that it takes around 450 years for plastic to disappear [depending on type of plastic and environment], but most plastics never really biodegrade but mostly photodegrades (*) – which means that it’ll just break down in smaller and smaller pieces… Imagine having to clean up microscopic pieces of plastic !
If you think about it, as plastic takes 450 years to disappear [if it ever does, because as mentioned, some scientists are concerned that it only photodegrades], and [plastic as we know it] was only created quite recently, every pieces of plastic ever created is still hanging around ! (*4)
Secondly, depending on the type of plastic and the environment it is found within, there are concerns that plastic could leak harmful chemicals. In certain cases, such as with microbreads in water bodies, it can also attracts toxics around it and become way more toxic than the water around it. (*5)
Then, the current plastic industry relies heavily on the petroleum industry; and we all know how bad fossil fuels are for the environment…

& how does plastic affects marine life specifically?

We need to keep in mind how interrelated everything is, hence the issues previously stated also affect marine life. For example, plastic high dependence on fossil fuels comes into play in our extraction and uses of fossil fuels and hence increases the possibilities of oil spills that then affects marine life directly; and while ocean acidification has many causes, the high releases of CO2 [to which fossil fuels are linked] certainly does not help.(*6)

The main direct impact plastic has on marine life though, is through entanglement or ingestion. Indeed, to marine life, plastic looks like food – be it plastic bags that look like jellyfishes or smaller pieces of plastic that looks like eggsThe ingestion of plastic can then results in internal injuries, possible ill effects from the toxins or starvation [as their stomach are filled with plastic]. Plastic also hurts or kills marine life through entanglement. We’ve probably all seen Chris Jordan’s pictures featuring dead albatrosses with stomachs filled with plastic items or videos of turtles being entangled in beer-packs…

Plastic can also affects marine life in ways we wouldn’t think of at first – for example, smaller plastic debris can accumulate on the ocean floor, blocking sunlight to the autotrophs below it. Autotrophs feed off sunlight and are at the bottom of the food chain, a disruption to the autotrophs level can hence also mean a disruption to the upper-levels of the food chain.  While researching this presentation I even stumbled upon the idea that floating plastic pieces could possibly help species spread beyond their natural ecosystems and become invasive species !

I think it’s key to remember once again how interconnected it all is: a threat to one specie, can be a threat to the whole ecosystem [the very definition of ecosystem convey this idea of interconnectedness as an ecosystem can be defined as ‘a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.’ ]. Did you know that 50 to 85% of Earth’s oxygen is created in the ocean ? Phytoplanktons, whales, and many other factors comes into play for this to happen, showcasing once again how interconnected we all are – even our ability to breath depends on a healthy ocean ! (*7)

Let’s not forget that plastic can go through the food chain and find itself on our plates if we consume seafood, and that plastic in the ocean can mean threats to food security for population that depend heavily on seafood to survive and have socioeconomics impacts as many depend on healthy oceans for their livelihoods [not only fishermen but all those who, through their professions, are linked to the sea one way or another]

It’s not that plastic is bad, it has useful applications [in the medical field for example !]; but maybe we overused it in instances where alternatives would be best…

Let’s consider this now : we generated this issue, maybe we could also generate a solution ?
Actions need to be taken on all levels, from legislation being passed to businesses providing more plastic-free options; but as consumers we also have the power to ask for changes! As demands is what drives the market, asking for more plastic-free options will likely make more plastic free options available. We can also all take actions in our everyday life to follow the 3Rs of the Waste Hierarchy(*8) : Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. A whole movement is slowly gaining traction and more and more citizens are documenting this lifestyle change.

You don’t have to do it all at once [that can be overwhelming ] but for sure you can start and do something. Even our smallest actions, added to millions of others, have an impact. There are so many ways to help, we just need to find what works for us.
You could invest in a reusable water bottle, bring your own cutlery when eating out or chose a restaurant that uses reusable dishes, buy items in bulks, cook something that you usually buy packaged from scratch, say no to single-use plastic straws […]

And yes, it can be done in Mauritius ! More and more people are becoming aware of these issues and trying to live with less waste and plastic here too. I actually shared my personal experience with Plastic Free July here [and   another post focused on zero waste in Mauritius is in preparation].

Lastly, just a few more words – what about recycling and biodegradable plastic bags? Each of these topics is huge on its own and much could be written about each, but I would like to quickly mention a few points. Recycling is great for waste that can’t be avoided, but still takes resources [energy,water…]. It’s also interesting to note that not everything can be recycled everywhere, and that some items are mostly downcycled [where the recycled material is of lower quality than the original and hence used for different purpose]. (*9)
And in regard to compostable plastic bags – there are different types of compostable plastic bags and each are made differently with questions being asked about some of the composants being used and the leftovers they produce, many can only be composted in industrial composter… (*10) This all looks like quite a grey area to me! Most importantly, we still use a lot of resources each time we create a new bag, be it compostable or not, hence why reusing a bag makes more sense…

Some resources to go deeper into this subject [because doing your own researches and getting informed is important for effective activism !], including bloggers to inspire you :
* Debris Free Oceans
* The Story of Stuff – Microfibers
* 5Gyres
*Take3
* Zero Waste Home
*Trash Is For Tosser
*Plastic Free Mermaid
*Gittemary Johanson

(*1) The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is ‘a British registered charity with the stated aim of inspiring a generation to re-think, re-design & build a positive future through the framework of a circular economy’.
(*2) You can have PET for example that is often used for beverages bottles, or HDPE that can be used for water pipes, and so many other types of plastic… Not all will have the same properties.
(*3) For more info about plastic decomposition, I find that this article explains it very simply.
(*4) If you read more about this subject, you realize that plastic has quite a long history and the exact date plastic was created really depends on what you consider to be the first plastic created… Found some interesting articles on the subject here and here .
(*5) To learn more about this subject, you can watch Story of Stuff great video on Microbeads.
(*6) Some more info here.
(*7) Interesting video linked to that subject : How Whales Change Climate.
(*8) Waste hierarchy is ‘The evaluation of processes that protect the enviroment alongside resources and energy consumption from most favourable to least favourable actions’.  Can also be added : Refuse before reducing, Rot for all organic material, and Redesign to change the system and go toward a circular economy.
(*9) See points #5-#13 of this post.
(*10) Only one of many articles raising questions about biodegradable bags here.