Pelican with plastic in bill
Plastic waste – as dangerous as climate change. Pelicans on Cairns Esplanade – photo ©Tony Neilson

An ocean of toxic plastic pollution

‘As dangerous as climate change’ is how some scientists are describing the environmental threat to the planet posed by plastic waste. And nothing short of a unified global effort will solve it.

According to Statista of Germany, the amount of plastic produced globally in a year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity. An estimated 9 billion kilos of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, and that is expected to double by 2025.

Often loaded with absorbed toxins, plastic waste is in our oceans, and in the bellies of the birds, fish and animals, including humans.

Higher than thought

A team of Australian scientists studying birds and marine debris found that more seabirds than the previous estimate of 29% were affected. ‘We predict that plastics ingestion … will reach 99% of all [seabird] species by 2050,’ they concluded. The full report is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The North Pacific gyre (a large system of rotating ocean currents) creates the largest garbage site in the world. Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch it covers about a million square km between California and Hawaii and the bulk of the tangled mess is discarded fishing gear. The gyre contains six kg of plastic for every kilo of plankton.

According to National Geographic, the patch is now the target of a US$32 million clean-up campaign launched by a Dutch teenager, Boyan Slat (now 23), and head of Ocean Cleanup, the organisation he founded to do the job.

Common noddies nesting, Michaelmas Cay
Double danger: extreme heat and rope flotsam (bottom right) – Michaelmas Cay rookery, Great Barrier Reef. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

No global agreement

UN attempts to reach global agreement on a solution were crippled in 2017 following rejection by the US, China and India of tough and binding measures. The final agreement merely calls on signatories to ‘work toward’ the creation of binding targets. (Unlikely under the presidency of Donald Trump.)

Meantime, localised anti-plastic campaigns are making inroads – albeit small. By 1 July, all except one of Australia’s states will have banned single-use, lightweight plastic bags at major retail outlets. Leaving only New South Wales out in the environmental cold.

But even in reactionary NSW there is good news, with major supermarkets Woolworths and Coles voluntarily extending their no-plastic-bags ban across all stores nationwide. (They currently hand out more than 3.2 billion single-use bags annually.)

Dragging the chain

New Zealand – frequently at the head of the line on eco issues – is dragging the chain on this one, with no national policy to cut the plastic crap, so to speak. However, a couple of big supermarkets will phase the bags out from the end of 2018.

A total ban on single-use plastic straws is the objective of The Last Straw campaign (cool brand) in Australia, and hundreds of bars, restaurants and clubs are supporting the initiative. (From my own neck of the woods, some 30 tourism operators servicing the Great Barrier Reef out of Cairns and Port Douglas have taken up the ban.)

Plastic pellets

The International Bird Rescue (IBR) organisation says millimetre-sized plastic pellets – the building blocks of larger products – clog US harbours and soak up toxic chemicals from seawater, poisoning the creatures that swallow them.

Because plastic pellets are magnets for toxic chemicals like DDT and PCBs, they effectively become poison pills. Japanese researchers found concentrations of those chemicals were up to a million times higher than in the water.

IBR says plastic water bottles take 450 years to decompose, and fishing lines and nets can take up to 600 years to break down.

Natural Images 2018

Brown booby teaching chick to use bill
The feather could just as easily be a piece of plastic – Michaelmas Cay, GBR. Photo: ©Tony Neilson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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