It’s everywhere. From the Mariana Trench to the floor of the Arctic Ocean, on tropical beaches and polar coasts. It’s in wildlife, seafood, sea salt and even on the surface of Mars. The world is blighted by plastic. Up to 12m tonnes of the stuff enters the world’s oceans every year (that’s one new tonne of plastic every three to 10 seconds) and it doesn’t go to that magical place called “away”.
Once in the oceans, it can float around for years, or even decades, before being swallowed by a bird or a whale. During that time, it can travel tens of thousands of kilometres, all the while absorbing contaminants from the sea water, concentrating them like a sponge. When wildlife ingest plastic, the brew of toxic chemicals can be transferred to the animal’s tissues with potentially dangerous consequences.
Often, though, plastic washes up on beaches. Pieces ranging from the size of a grain of sand to large buoys and nets litter the world’s beaches, even on the most remote islands. Most of it travels from distant lands, having been washed off the deck of a ship or, more commonly, from a storm sewer or waste management facility. Once on the beaches, plastic items can entangle sea turtles, trap land crabs and cut off access to the sand by other beach dwellers. And it just keeps coming. More than 350m tonnes of plastics are manufactured each year and that number is only going up. This is a problem that’s only going to get worse if we don’t act fast.
Plastic never breaks down, it only breaks up. Sunlight and the ocean waves make plastic brittle with age, fragmenting it into ever smaller pieces. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists somewhere in the world. Plastic is with us to stay and will be in the oceans for millennia to come. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it.
We must reduce the amount of plastic in the oceans, an imperative noted in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. The best way to keep rubbish from washing up on beaches is to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single-use items, and to make a commitment to seek out alternative materials where possible. Single-use items, so-called “disposable” items such as razors, cutlery, scoops and toothbrushes, are common on the some of the most remote beaches in the world, including Henderson Island. This is an area where we all need to make better decisions about the types of products we use and how we dispose of them.
Governments must also act. The Ocean Conference at the UN this June will hopefully lay the groundwork for an international strategy to reduce plastic in the oceans. But if we’ve learned anything from international climate strategies, it’s that global environmental agreements take a long time to negotiate and even longer to implement. In the meantime, we as individuals can do a lot. And we need to.
For plastics, marine birds and remote islands are the canaries in the coalmine. We look to them to tell us about the health of the oceans but for far too long they have been ignored. We need bold, decisive action if we are to save the oceans upon which we all depend and its charismatic islands and wildlife that have captivated us for centuries.