At present, plastic pollution is seen as one of the key anthropogenic influences on our marine environment, and the use of plastic products is expected to continuously increase. This article explores the current state of plastics in our oceans and the projects dedicated to reducing its harmful impact.
Plastic is a durable, versatile material suited to a variety of applications replacing use of more conventional materials for packaging and single use items. As it stands, 70-80 million tonnes of plastic packaging are used each year, yet the proportion of this figure that ends up in the ocean is still to be estimated. Unfortunately, this estimate is expected to increase due to the migration of people to coastal areas and extensive fishing and recreational use of the ocean.
Recently, the deleterious effects of microplastic pollution in the marine environment has been propelled into the media. Previously, most studies focussed on large marine mammal entanglement such a whales and dolphins, as well as plastic ingestion by sea turtles and birds. It has been found that plastic pollution affects 44% of marine species in a wide range of size classes. It is therefore far more prevalent than originally thought. Most concerning is not the images of sea turtles sporting a six-pack ring necklaces, but rather the plastic we cannot see, often referred to as ‘microplastics’.
The origin of microplastics comes from the breakdown of larger ‘meso’ plastics, or through direct introduction from land-based sources, with 80% of ocean plastic debris originating from land. The physical characteristics of microplastics show resemblance to feeding matter such as plankton or suspended particles. Often the toxic components associated with them have been shown to accumulate in marine fauna. Organisms ranging from molluscs to mammals have been found to accumulate chemical substances such as flame retardants from contaminated ingested plastics. Furthermore, there is evidence of chemical substances bioaccumulating at higher trophic levels which can then enter human food webs via sea food consumption. Presently, there is no standardised method of quantifying microplastics in the ocean, considering they are too small for most netting. Most methods of quantification involve extraction of microplastics and visual counting using a microscope, though this is prone to human error and extremely labour intensive.
In light of this, conservationists and marine scientists alike have sprung to action to combat this exponentially growing issue. None more so than, Emily Penn and her all-female crew who have circumnavigated the globe to understand and generate solutions to plastic pollution in remote corners of the world. Operating since 2013, eXXpedition aims to empower a community-led network and raise awareness of the devastating impacts of single-use plastic. Not only this, but the all-female approach looks to empower women into leadership roles and encourage cultural shifts of women in science. On dry land the non-profit organisation runs workshops and outreach events with organisations and communities to fight the global and interconnected threat of marine plastic pollution with efforts to regulate plastic waste.
In a similar vein, Pelorus is looking to replicate the success of Emily Penn and hope to utilise her techniques by encouraging their private owners to collect plastics for analysis on longer ocean passages.
Follow the link below to learn about how Pelorus Foundation works to protect our oceans.