Blog: Plastic pollution of the oceans
Published: 20 Jun 2019
Earlier this year I travelled to the South Pacific on a Churchill Fellowship, to examine strategies for reducing plastics entering the oceans.
There has been a huge amount of recent attention focussed on plastic in the oceans. The tipping point for public awareness in the UK came when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 was broadcast in November 2017. The series only focused on plastic for around 14 minutes, out of seven hours of broadcasting, but it changed people’s views.
Whilst the general public and media attention on plastic pollution is fairly new, it’s an issue I have been involved with for over 25 years. I began studying marine pollution in 1994. Back then, and for the following 20 years, there was almost no recognition that the amount of plastic in marine waters was impacting on every part of the ocean ecosystem.
"The vast majority of plastics ever made is still with us."
The vast majority of plastics ever made is still with us and there are shocking stories being reported on an almost daily basis of large quantities of plastic being found in whales and dolphins, sea turtles, fish and seabirds. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has warned that by 2050, unless significant changes are made, there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish. It’s also certain that we are consuming plastic, through eating fish and the presence of plastics in drinking water, but the impact of this on human health is uncertain and contested.
The area of the Pacific Ocean that I visited is affected by what is known as the South Pacific garbage patch, where an increase in plastic pollution density can be detected over an area estimated to be one million square miles.
Then in Fiji I visited the Coca Cola bottling plant, where customers are paid for returning the company’s plastic bottles once they’ve been used. Many of the poorer locals are scrabbling a living by collecting bottles from the streets, roadsides and beaches. In Vanuatu, the government is banning numerous products in an effort to curtail ocean pollution. They’ve just announced plans to introduce a ban on disposable nappies by the end of the year.
After leaving the smaller Pacific islands, I headed to New Zealand. I was interested to hear about the efforts of a fishing company that is trying to minimise the use of plastics throughout its supply chain. There have also been moves to fit filters into washing machines aboard ships in the Southern Ocean, to prevent microplastics (minuscule plastic fibre particles present in many clothes) from entering the seas.
The final stop on my trip was Australia, where I visited the manufacturer of recycling stations that enable people to cash in their used drink containers for a refund of 10 Australian cents. These are known as reverse vending machines. The manufacturer recently announced that they have taken a billion containers off the streets, since the initiative was rolled out across New South Wales.
There are proposals to introduce similar deposit return schemes to the UK. I believe this would be hugely beneficial, but it must be a nationwide system: my experience in Australia showed me that where there is inconsistency between jurisdictions (States and Territories, in the case of Australia), this can lead to confusion, reduced rates of recycling and ultimately more plastic remaining in the environment.
Recent efforts by individuals have been impressive, but to make a rapid step-change in reducing plastic pollution, businesses, industry and governments need to intervene further. I am more optimistic that we are beginning to confront plastic pollution than at any time since I started working on this topic 25 years ago. The problem isn’t new, but the public attention is - so it’s important to capitalise on the present momentum to make lasting positive change.