I am sure you all have seen those heart-sickening pictures of dead albatrosses on the beaches of the Galapagos Islands. Between what remains from their deck of feathers, plastic bottle caps are bulking out of their stomachs. The issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is reaching alarming rates with far-reaching impacts. It seems that finally, the issue has reached the greater public thanks to mind-boggling footage in documentaries like the Plastic Ocean, and the renowned BBC series Blue Planet II. Better late than never. If the little sea turtles tangled up in an abandoned fisher net didn’t pull you over the line, the danger of microplastics building up in the fish on your plate surely should get you onboard the fight against ocean plastics. But you might be wondering… where to start?
I’ll be honest. I didn’t have a proper answer myself before researching this blog post. So I called in my best advisor — Google. It quickly became clear that data on ocean litter is rather scarce –given the size of the problem–, scientific studies diverse in their methodologies, and conclusions mostly indicative. So mind you, the numbers presented in this blog post have to be taken with a grain of sea salt.
It seems like a good idea to find out the location where plastic becomes ocean plastic. The origins of the reportedly 8 to 10 billion tonnes of plastics that find their way into the open sea per year are diverse. On a weight basis, it looks like fishing activities contribute most to ocean littering in the form of fisher nets, lines, and abandoned buoys. A large share of the waste is hence created at sea itself during aquaculture, shipping, and fishing activities. Conclusion: a first frontier of the war on ocean plastic is the marine industry itself.
About 30% of the waste, by weight, comes from consumer goods like bottles, styrofoam food packaging, plastic bags, and buckets. Contamination mainly happens in coastal regions, through beach littering, mismanaged waste treatment of coastal cities, and rivers helping both waste from further inland and the region close to the estuary find their way to the sea.
Researchers recently showed that 10 rivers are responsible for about 85-90% of the world’s (land generated) waste ending up in the ocean. And eight of those rivers lie in Asia, while the other two lie in Africa. Numerical modeling reanalysed with large-scale measurement data from the Ocean Cleanup initiative showed a clear correlation between population density in coastal regions, its waste treatment ratio, and plastic debris dumped into the ocean via rivers. Even so, the densely populated coastal areas in Asia seem to litter their surrounding waters more than proportionally. One of the most impactful measures to stop plastic ending up in the oceans is hence reducing waste mismanagement and low public awareness in those countries.
Does that mean Europe and the US can rest on their laurels? You wish! First of all, analyzing ocean debris by weight only tells half of the story. Macroplastics (roughly speaking everything larger than 50 mm in diameter) literally outweigh microplastics (everything smaller than 5 mm), but they do not outnumber them. It is currently believed that those swarms of tiny little plastic particles are far more hazardous than the macroplastics. They end up in smaller fish, which form the first step of the marine food chain.
And now it happens to be so that Europe and the States create proportionally more of those nasty microplastics. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Microplastics are created by the wear and tear of car tires, are released during the washing of textiles, released from painting on buildings and roads, and found in cosmetic products like face scrubs. And countries with more wealth seem to have more of all of those.
But if you are a bit like me, not driving a car, trying to avoid doing the laundry as much as possible, and not using face scrubs with microbeads, what else can you do have an impact on ocean plastics in a country like Belgium that has high waste management levels?
A very compelling argument to me is that 95% of the headquarters of the top 20 plastic manufacturing companies and 85% of the top 20 consumer goods companies are based in Europe or the States. Hence, it’s the place to be to pressure leadership of multinationals to change the game. Circular economy practices can bring about fast and far-reaching change without having to wait for behavioral change of the masses — which is undoubtedly necessary but typically takes a few decades (let’s face it).
So… where should you now focus your personal fight against ocean plastics? The answer clearly depends on where you live and work. Active in the marine industry? Launch a call for responsible fishing and shipping practices. Living in Asia? Lobby for better waste management infrastructure. Based in Europe or the States? Push leadership of multinationals to rethink plastics from scratch. Wherever you are, an entrepreneurial spirit and good dose of creativity will get you far!