When plastic ends up in our oceans

Anne Sophie Le Brun Robles Gil

With all the personal protection equipment (PPE) required to keep COVID-19 at bay, there has been a rise in the amount of plastic we consume day to day. This is on top of all the plastic waste we already produce each year, much of which isn’t properly disposed of.
Every year, some eight million tons of plastic end up in oceans around the world. Once in the ocean, they will often get swept up by the current. Eventually, these currents will make the pieces of plastic collect in specific locations. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is in the North Pacific Gyre, an area defined by circulating oceanic currents. It is composed of an eastern and western patch where the density of pieces of plastic is very high compared to the rest of the Pacific Ocean.
So, what is the impact of all this plastic in the oceans?
The impact is rather widespread, leading to economic and health concerns, amongst others.
Plastic waste can have a serious impact on several different economic sectors, like fisheries and recreational activities. The resulting cost of the losses suffered by these industries due to plastic waste has been estimated at around $2.5 trillion each year.
The impact on wildlife is just as widespread. Every year, at least one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals end up injured or killed due to plastic around the world. Usually, this is following an entanglement with or ingestion of the plastic. Some studies suggest that by 2050, 99 per cent of seabirds will be eating plastic. By this same time, there may be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
To make matters worse, plastic can take several hundred years to decompose. Instead, it just keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than five millimetres. These can be created intentionally, such as the microbeads used as exfoliants in some toiletries, or through the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic. As such, microplastics can come in many forms, like beads, pellets, films, fibres, or foam.
Though we still don’t know the full extent of the impact microplastics are having on our oceans, there is reason to be concerned.
Microplastics have been found throughout the oceans, in lakes and rivers across the world including North America’s great lakes, and even in some frozen sea ice. Studies have shown that animals and humans alike are ingesting them. This can happen by ingesting anything containing microplastics, like contaminated water, beer, salt, sugar, seafood, alcohol, and honey.
A study estimated that we may each be consuming between 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic molecules each year. This number goes up when counting the pieces we may inhale.
The exact effects this can have on the health of humans and wildlife are not yet fully known.
Thankfully, there is starting to be some regulation as to how much and what kinds of plastic can be manufactured.
The manufacture, import, and sale of microbeads in toiletries and non-prescription health products have been banned in Canada. This regulation came into effect in two parts, one in July 2018 and the other in July 2019.
The federal government of Canada announced in June 2019 a plan to ban some kinds of single-use plastics by 2021. Although the exact details of this are still unknown, it would likely include products such as disposable plastic cutlery, bags, and water bottles.
Given only about ten per cent of plastic waste in Canada gets recycled, reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place is vital.
Unfortunately, the most common form of microplastic is neither microbeads nor fragments of single-use plastic bottles or bags. Instead, it is microfibers, originating from things like fishing nets, cigarette butts, and clothes.
As such, fast fashion and the clothing industry in general have a large impact on the number of microplastics that end up in the ocean. Clothes made of materials like polyester, nylon, or rayon can be especially damaging when they get worn or thrown away. In some cases, simply washing clothes made from synthetic materials can cause microfibers to end up in the water that will then get swept into rivers.
Though steps are being taken to help decrease the amount of plastic we produce and the amount that ends up in our oceans, there is still much work to be done. This is especially the case since the oceans are impacted by every country in the world, and it will require international effort for a global impact to be achieved.

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