The Last Straw: Blinded by Plastic Pollution

As the innocent seahorse grips on to the immortal cotton bud our hearts grow heavy with guilt. The entire world has been shown the harsh reality of plastic in the ocean through photos of sweet sea turtles suffering from the plastic we throw away so freely. For the past few months the world has been fixated on this environmental problem, but are we diverting our attention away from something even bigger?

The episode that started it all.

Plastic production became popular in the 1960s which triggered the plastic revolution. We learned how to create and manipulate plastic, making it an essential part of our everyday lives. In the past century, humans have produced an infinite amount of plastic. We are now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year with over 8 million tons making its way into our oceans. Despite reports highlighting the possible concerns of plastic in the environment, it took Sir David Attenborough to bring the issue to the attention of the public – and the government. The legendary David Attenborough brought this problem to the screens in our living rooms in January 2018 through Blue Planet II. Since then plastic pollution in the media skyrocketed.

iStock 1069886184Why is single use plastic a problem?

Plastics can come in all shapes and sizes, from the size of a grain of sand to fishing nets meters long, which allow it to be present in most marine environments. This also makes it very difficult to know where it is in the ocean, what it looks like and what damage it does. As shown in many studies, one of the major problems of plastic pollution is the hardiness and persistence of this synthetic material and its inability to be broken down naturally by microbes. Plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade and is shown in science to accumulate in many marine animals, from tiny plankton to mighty mammals.

In recent news, large mammals have been found with plastic piled up in their digestive systems. Many marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, have been found stranded with thousands of plastic pieces within their bodies which scientists believe have died from starvation. Most recent news includes a Cuvier’s beaked whale, recovered in the Philippines, found with 40 kg of plastic within its body. Darrel Blatchley, the director of the D’Bone Collector museum conducted the necropsy and said that once an incision into the body was made “plastic immediately started to spew out of it”. Small pieces of plastic from industrial waste and consumer products known as microplastics have also been found in benthic scavengers and suspension feeders. Microplastics can be smaller than 5 mm, in forms of small balls or fibers. In science today, research is underway regarding the effects of microplastics, however, there is still much to learn.

Just chasing wild plastic?

We are all aware of the concern of plastics shown all across the media. Unlike other pollutants, plastic is very visible. No one can ignore the images of a defenseless creature entangled in our own doing. No one can ignore the endless string of litter on a morning summer beach walk with the family. We know that plastic is in a large abundance in the natural environment. However, looking closely at evidence, is plastic as harmful as we believe? With an environment already under threat by warming waters and ocean acidification, are we turning a blind eye on an even deadlier villain to mother nature?

iStock 1023578222Climate change and exploitation

Due to global warming and climate change temperatures are breaking records around the world. The highest temperatures have been seen in the last 20 years. While there are many naturally occurring phenomena that can cause changes to the climate, human activity accelerates this from the excessive use of greenhouse gases. Sea levels also rise each year by 3.2 mm due to high temperatures causing thermal water expansion and melting of glaciers. There is no scientific debate about the reality of climate change; 97% of scientific researchers believe this is happening, however, this is considered only the third most serious issue facing this worlds populations.

Presently, global temperatures have increased by 1˚C, it is at the upmost priority to provide efforts to limit warming to 1.5˚C. However, due the rate of change, warming is expected to reach 2˚C by 2050. This may not seem like a huge difference, however, much like the domino effect, it creates trouble. If greenhouse gas emissions are not lowered, this increase is inevitable, so scientists are developing mitigation and adaptation strategies for both slowing down this process and adapting to the conditions we might see soon.

On top of climate change, we exploit the resources of this planet. Overfishing can decrease population numbers of target species and potentially harvest endangered species which can cause drastic changes in ecosystems. Exploitation of land is a serious problem; agriculture is one of the leading causes of deforestation. In South America, South Africa and South East Asia, 13 million hectares of forest is cut down for agricultural use. The world’s forests provide us with 20% of oxygen content in the air and half of the worlds tropical forests have been cleared. The loss of forests also contributes 12-17% of annual global greenhouse gases. This can cause extinction of species and forced migration, where animals have to move into new locations simply because they cannot survive. Natural resources are not limitless.

Overexploitation and excessive consumption of natural resources destroys our natural ecosystems. In relation to this plastic pollution in the marine environment is one of the less priorities of harm to or planet.

The problem in front of us

  • Over 70% of the worlds coral reefs have been damaged by climate change.
  • In the last 50 years, 90% of all large fishes have disappeared to extinction due to destructive industrial fishing.
  • Arctic ice cover has lost two thirds of its oldest ice having currently left 70% of seasonal ice cover, which builds and melts within a single year.

Now look at our plastic problem. With global warming being at its highest, all animals are threatened; terrestrial and marine. So why are we focused on plastic? Plastic pollution is very visual which makes it highly emotive, we can see the effects of this plastic waste that we are responsible for. In relation to plastic pollution, the effects of climate change and over-exploitation of natural resources on this planet are slow-going. Nevertheless, they do have a large impact on biodiversity, habitat destruction and environmental conditions.

Story by Elise Poore, Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth

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