The Growth of Plastics in our oceans & Potential Solutions

Yearly, litter and specifically plastic occupy larger and larger parts globally of our oceans, rivers and waterways. We are faced with a pressing crisis in the form of a number of pressing challenges, which are the eradication of aquatic organisms, the destruction of the ocean ecosystem and the severe impacts on global communities from the ever amassing litter patches that stretch across the world

Note – 

Why not read our first article on this subject for context – Planet Plastic: More plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050. 

The Issue – 

We use nearly 2 million plastic bags globally and over 1 million plastic bottles that are purchased per minute, as highlighted in 2017. It is estimated between 8 – 10 million tonnes of plastic enter the seas and oceans, yearly. Now to put this in perspective it takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to completely degrade. Besides the obvious implications of amassing mass quantities of plastic bottles at landfills and waterways, bottled water also requires up to 2,000 times the energy used to produce tap water. Globally recycling bottles varies from country to country, with the United States recycling a measly 30% of plastic bottles in contrast to Norway, who recycle 97%. Early last year, the Business Post reported that Ireland produces the most plastic per person in the EU. 

On a yearly basis, millions of tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans, as the majority spills out from rivers. A portion of this plastic gets caught in circulating currents and is destined to end up at one of the five global garbage patches that occupy our oceans. The yearly economic cost due to marine plastic is estimated to be between $6 – 19 billion USD. Another study forecast the cost could amount to $2.5-trillion per year, or $33,000 per tonne. 

These costs do not take into account the detrimental impact plastic in our oceans has on human health and marine ecosystems. Plastic pollution impacts nearly 700 marine species. Yearly, thousands of seabirds, sea turtles and seals are killed by ingesting or becoming entangled in plastics. The consequence is not only the destruction of sea life but the introduction of toxic pollutants into the food chain.  Plastics have been found in newborn babies as we are exposed to harmful toxic chemicals daily. Alarmingly as reported in The Guardian microplastics were discovered in the placentas of unborn babies. 

A study carried out by Deloitte showed that on a yearly basis up to 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles, who die after ingesting or becoming entangled by plastic. The consumption of plastics by animals is alarming, as it is one of the ways plastic is entering into our food chain. Approximately 80% of plastic debris in the ocean comes largely from land waste. In contrast, the source of the remaining 20% originates mostly from fishing and trawls. 

Local & Global: Potential Solutions

The Ocean Cleaup

Boyan Slat, a Dutch inventor who in 2013 at the age of eighteen became the founder of The Ocean Cleaup project (OCP) which is a non-profit foundation established in his hometown of Delft, the Netherlands. The Ocean Cleanup project quite simply is the largest cleanup in history specifically focussed on the ocean. The project aims to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution by developing and scaling technologies to rid the oceans of plastic. The HQ for the non-profit is based in Rotterdam, whose team consist of 120 engineers, researchers, scientists, computational modellers and supporting roles, who work daily to rid the world’s oceans of plastic

By 2050 we are set to have more plastic in the ocean than fish. The OCP intervention is based on two methods of extraction. The first is at the source in rivers/ lakes before entering the ocean. System 002 was created by the project and has been deployed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is the largest oceanic gyre. Across 1,000 rivers around the world, the OCP are intercepting plastic before it reaches the oceans. The OCP aims to reduce 80% of plastic entering the oceans from rivers within five years of the rollout of their invention the ‘Interceptor’

Water Witch Dredger

Notably, Francis Caddick in the 1960s a native of Liverpool, United Kingdom invented a boat called the Water Witch Dredger, which skimmed bits of wood and other debris out of the water so it could be taken away. The company is still a family run business and claims to have removed over 2.1 million tonnes of plastic and other debris from around the world. 

Microbes – 

A discovery by scientists in Japan in March 2016 has been heralded as ground breaking. After scientists scooped up some sludge from outside a bottle recycling facility in Osaka, they discovered bacteria which had developed the ability to decompose, or “eat” plastic. 

The incredible bacteria is Ideonella Sakaiensis, which was only able to eat a particular kind of plastic called polyethylene terephhatlates  (PET). Most plastic bottles contain PET, however, the bacteria could not be deployed to work fast enough to mitigate the millions of tons of plastic waste that enter the environment every year. The bacteria took longer to eat away highly crystallised PET, which is used in plastic bottles. That means the enzymes and processes would need refinement before it could be deployed for industrial recycling or pollution clean-up. 

After this discovery, an international team tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved by adding amino acids, but tests indicated they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET. The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic much faster than the process occurring in our oceans. Researchers are optimistic that this could be speeded up even further and become a viable large scale process. 

The leading researcher on this project Professor John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom optimistically stated “What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic…It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”

PET makes up almost one-sixth of the world’s annual plastic production of 311m tonnes. Despite PET being one of the most commonly recycled plastics, the world economic forum (WEF) reports that only just over half is ever collected from recycling and far less actually ends up being reused. 

Team Seas – 

TeamSeas is a project that was launched by MrBeast and Mark Rober on the 29th October 2021. The objective of the project was to clean-up the world’s oceans by raising $30 million to clean and extract 14 million kilograms of litter out of the ocean . Although the aims of TeamSeas are inspiring and needed, sadly their efforts will be undone in a short period of time

At the time of writing this article TeamSeas have removed over 30,430,956 pounds of plastic/ waste, which surpasses their objective of extracting 30,000,000 pounds of plastic. However, the website presently states “We did it! Now let’s keep going. Come back anytime you feel like removing some trash!”. My honest interpretation from reading this statement is that TeamSeas regards their objective as achieved and now merely have the option to donate as a novelty. However, I might be merely a bit cynical in my interpretation of this victory statement. 

The ability to scale up a number of viable efficient solutions that address this ongoing issue must be required, as a necessity if we are to stop the toxic pollution of maritime life and the sweeping destruction to our global seas. 

Fishing for Litter – 

In 2004, KIMO International established a program called Fishing for Litter, which encourages commercial fishermen to remove ghost gear and other litter at sea in bins around European ports. Between 2016 – 2017 just shy of 1,000 vessels gathered 470 tonnes of ocean plastics along with their catch – voluntarily

Criticism – 

The question that generally surrounds the criticism of these solutions primarily are centred on, are we really making a difference? Are we engaged in a losing battle? Are these solutions sufficient and scalable? Is there a global coordinated approach and cooperation on these projects? Accepting these ventures as solutions is convenient and reassuring, however, the acceptance of solutions that have not been scaled to adequately address the underlying issues can be seen as merely greenwashing by some critics. 

Unfortunately, there is no quick solution to address this growing crisis, although the solutions listed above have some merit, the problem is complex. Stopping the production of the most dangerous and harmful plastics and minimising our dependence globally on plastic production. Surely, addressing this challenge at the source is vital instead of merely focussing on the plastic when it ends up in our oceans and other waterways, which is proving to be a tedious and expensive undertaking. Investment is required in designing appropriate infrastructure for waste disposal in developing nations, as this is another contributory factor and is not to mention, an unsatisfactory and unsanitary state of living for people in these nations. Educating the public on the different types of plastic in circulation, the growing challenges we face and the opportunity to identify biodegradable alternatives to single-use plastic and other plastics are areas we need to address in our knowledge gap. 

If we merely focus on temporary solutions or are incapable of adequately identifying the best solutions to the growing crisis that is plastic in the oceans and waterways of the world. 

Conclusion – 

The extraction of plastic from our oceans is most definitely beneficial, however, the environmental costs associated with the process and the overall current size of extraction projects, which will need to be optimised, scaled and environmentally viable, if to be successful in reducing the current plastic pollution of our oceans. A coordinated approach globally in collaboration between a number of different projects and stakeholders utilising a variety of solutions addressing different aspects of this complex challenge, which potentially can provide respite to us all. 

The better we manage the waste and plastic on land, the less will end up in our waterways. Without awareness and structural wide changes by all involved nations, companies and most importantly people these issues will continue to plague our generation and future generations, as we continue to kick the metaphorical can further down the road.

Note – Why not read our first article on this subject for context – Planet Plastic: More plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050. 

Ideas for Activism 

What you can do – 

Ensure you dispose of all litter and especially plastics when outdoors. If you want to do more, why not get involved with a local beach or river or harbour cleanup or set-up an initiative?

Get Informed – Here are some suggestions for further research on how to reduce and address the problem of polluting our seas, rivers and harbours further at the source. 

As consumers, we can seek to champion brands by spending money on products that are ethically sourced, sustainable and a viable alternative to one that uses plastic. As citizens, we can advocate for policies changes and encourage companies who are the largest producers of single-use plastic to make the switch to alternatives. These steps can potentially reduce our society contributing further to the growing five gyres. In some developing countries inadequate waste management systems and facilities are also key areas that need to be addressed in order to reduce our contribution to the ongoing pollution of our oceans. 

Further ideas – 

In your local area, if you are not residing close to waterways, why not find there is consistently litter dumped in a park, alley, street or laneway, why not contact your local representative about the need for additional bins? 

Questions – 

Have you heard about this issue before?
What are your thoughts on this issue?
What solution do you think could be viable? 

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