Marine Plastics Pollution Conference
What is it about the seaside that we find so appealling? Could it be the myriad amusement arcades, bingo halls and ice cream parlours that tend to cluster close to the shoreline? Or could it be that the seaside is a place where everyone is equal? All colours and creeds, men and women, boys and girls, all shapes and sizes, stripped to their bare essentials.
Or, is it simply that we derive a primal pleasure from being beside such a vast, seemingly endless, expanse of water, entranced by the waves as they lap up onto the shore, or strolling along the shingle as we try our best to keep our feet dry? Or perhaps it’s the utter relaxation of melting into a deckchair, snoring under a parasol with all cares washed away.
The world's oceans have sustained us and enslaved us, calmed us and terrified us, brought us the wonders of the world and carried our loved ones to distant lands. Theirs is the awesome power both to sustain life and to take it away.
Indeed, one could say that the Earth is really a vast spherical waterworld, its smooth blue face occassionally interrupted by outbreaks of dry land. 71% of the surface of our planet is water, and the oceans contain almost 97% of that water: dihydrogen monoxide, the chemical that is most crucial to life. It’s in the air as vapour, it’s in the lakes and rivers, the icecaps and the glaciers, and it even makes up most of you and me.
Without water, life is inconceivable. Its quality directly and inescapably affects that of our our own health and wellbeing. We pollute it at our peril.
There is growing recognition that the quantity of plastics entering our oceans poses one of the greatest threats to the future of life on Earth. Macroplastics, microplastics, even nanoplastics – this supremely durable, stubbornly persistent, and virtually indestructable "wonder material" is killing marine life, entering the food chain and slowly choking our planet.
Take single-use plastic water bottles. 20,000 are manufactured every second. That’s 1.2 million every minute. Half a trillion every year. Of these, less than 7% are recycled. The rest enter landfill or are dumped into our waterways, eventually finding their way into our oceans where they will persist for up to 1,000 years. Every minute, one garbage truck load of plastic waste is dumped into our seas. If things continue at the projected rate, by 2050 this will have risen to four garbage truck loads per minute, or one every 15 seconds. At this point, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
We know this because we can see it. Talk a walk along any Irish beach and it won’t be long before you encounter plastic bottles and containers washed up amongst the seaweed or lodged in rockpools. Check how many of them have writing in foreign languages, and consider how far they must have travelled. But it’s the plastics that we can’t see that are perhaps doing the most damage of all. Prof. Richard Thompson, Head of the International Marine Little Research Unit at the University of Plymouth and one of the world’s leading authorities on the problems caused by plastic pollution in the marine environment, is the man who coined the term "microplastics".
The most obvious form of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans consists of larger piece of plastic, or "macroplastics", as they are known. Think floating plastic bottles, carrier bags, fishing crates and other such debris. These items have become a global scourge and, due to the action of oceanic currents, they tend to cluster together and blanket large areas of the sea’s surface. There are now even five large permanent floating "islands" comprising these materials. The most notorious is the vast "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", an ever-growing coalescence of floating plastic waste in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that now has a surface area that is twice the size of France!
One start-up hoping to attract investors at the conference is Global Satellite Vu, which plans to tackle the problems posed by this floating macroplastic waste. They plan to use satellite technology both to identify sources of plastic pollution and to work out the most effective ways to remove it. Anthony Baker, CEO of the company, explains.
The very smallest plastic particles, virtually invisible to the human eye, are called "nanoplastics". They are formed when larger plastic particles degrade and disintegrate and are small enough to be ingested accidentally by a great many marine creatures. What impact are these having on marine ecosystems and the creatures that depend on them? Is there a risk that these particles will contaminate the human food chain too?
Recent studies have revealed that a significant quantity of nanoplastics are actually being produced in our oceans by krill, those tiny crustaceans that form the backbone of oceanic food chains and comprise the staple diet of whales, squid and penguins, amongst many other creatures. These krill have been found actually to eat microplastics and break them down in their guts into even smaller nanoplastic particles that re-enter the water, through a process called digestive fragmentation.
An alarming proportion of krill also have near-permanent reserves of nanoplastics in their bodies, which, when they are consumed by other marine life, passes the contamination further up the food chain. A study carried out recently by researchers at NUI Galway found that 73% of the deepwater fish that they studied – those fish found in what one would think would be the most inaccessible parts of the ocean, least influenced by human activity – had plastic particles inside their bodies, affecting their ability to breed, feed and digest food.
It is also now being widely understood that those of us who like to eat marine molluscs – think mussels, oysters and clams – are also consuming the tiny plastic particles that these filter feeders inadvertently extract from the sea as they feed. What we don’t yet fully understand is what the effects of this plastic contamination could be on our own health. Over time, certain plastics degrade and leach potentially harmful chemicals. Some could be carcinogenic, while others are thought to mimic the effects of hormones, disrupting body chemistry. It might not yet be a significant problem for humans, but if our reckless contamination of our planet’s oceans continues then we could be creating serious problems for future generations, as we have already done for some of the sea’s most enigmatic creatures.
Take the albatross. 22 species of these enormous seafaring birds roam the world’s oceans, as their ancestors did for millions of years. Right across their ranges, albatross numbers are plummeting as their stomachs fill with plastic waste, leaving no room for actual food, and 17 of those 22 species are now considered to be in serious danger of extinction. BirdWatch Ireland and other seabird researchers in this country have been finding similar patterns in Irish seabirds too, with Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters and other surface-feeders increasingly falling victim to the scourge of plastic pollution.
Recently, media outlets around the world reported the tragic story of a Pilot Whale in southern Thailand that died in agony having swallowed 80 plastic shopping bags, a story that is becoming depressingly familiar across our planet. Sea turtles are also threatened with extinction, choking or starving to death because they mistake floating plastic bags for the jellyfish that form such a core part of their diet.
In this special edition of Mooney Goes Wild, Derek Mooney travels to London to attend a plastics conference.