Plastic Pollution

The oceans are drowning in waste

It has been estimated that nine million tons of plastic waste finds its way into the oceans every year. About 20% of this waste originates from ships, while the bigger part is land-borne – carried to the sea by sewers, rivers, wind or tides.

Plastic is a nearly omnipresent part of our daily life. It has become a plague to our planet, because it is being used inappropriately. It is nonsense to make disposable packaging from materials that persist for centuries. On average, thin plastic bags – still a matter of course for many of us when shopping – are turned into waste within 25 minutes. That is hardly responsible use of such a persistent and destructive resource.

Sea currents carry the floating plastic debris even to the remotest areas of the planet. The waste products of civilisation are now absolutely everywhere, from secluded beaches to the Antarctic sea floor.

Plastic waste is also generated where we would not expect it. Cosmetics manufacturers increase the cleaning efficiency of toothpaste, shower gels, or peeling products by adding very small plastic beads (microplastic). These microplastic particles are so small that they simply pass through the wastewater treatment plants and are washed into rivers and eventually into the oceans.

Microparticles are also the result of larger plastic parts being broken up by sunlight and saltwater. This process also sets free a toxic cocktail from these plastics, including carcinogenic styrol or bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor and neurotoxic substance. Plastic particles also absorb organic pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or the insecticide DDT. These noxious substances reach concentrations attached to plastic particles that may be millionfold higher than in the surrounding water.

Fatal consequences for animals and humans

The microparticles and their contaminant load are being ingested by marine wildlife, from the smallest animals to the large whales, which strain their food from the water. The toxins are not only causing harm to the animals, but they also reach humans through the food chain. Unlike industrialised nations who can choose from a wide variety of foods, many people in developing countries rely on the sea as a source of protein and are particularly vulnerable to toxic pollution of marine animals.

Marine animals which mistake larger plastic items for food die agonising deaths. Indigestible waste clogs their intestinal tract. The animals get weaker and weaker and eventually starve to death with their stomachs full of plastic.

Floating plastic is also a deadly trap, when juvenile marine animals get entangled in plastic parts that slowly strangle them while they grow. Adult animals may drown miserably because their fins are tied by plastic strings.

The numbers are alarming: hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, seals, sea turtles and even polar bears fall victim to plastic waste; sea birds deaths as a result of plastics are counted in the millions.

If this pollution trends continue unabatedly, the plastic waste floating in the oceans will outweigh the fish living in the seas by 2050.