Plastic Islands: How plastic waste affects our seas and oceans
Millions of tons of plastic waste are thrown into the water of our planet’s seas and oceans each year. This situation has led us to see our oceans as a sea of plastic. No, it is not an exaggeration. The magnitude of the problem is such that in some areas this material has accumulated in such a way that it has formed true islands of plastic in the ocean.
Plastic Island & micro plastics
These graphically called plastic islands can cover an area larger than those of several countries and accumulate enormous amounts of micro plastics that are ingested by organisms that inhabit the oceans and, given their size, pass into their bloodstream, which ends up being deadly for birds and marine mammals.
So far, five floating plastic islands have been identified that threaten to decimate marine ecosystems as they can kill millions of animals a year: one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic and two in the Pacific. But we must not forget that these surface areas, which have a high concentration of micro-plastics, are only the tip of the iceberg, since they represent less than 15% of the plastic waste in the oceans.
These plastic islands in the sea contribute to climate change and pose a clear threat to health, as well as water and air quality. In addition, these plastic islands put at risk the subsistence of many small human communities that live from the oceans and fishing.
According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme, every year, about 11 million tons of plastic waste reach seas and oceans. 80% of this waste comes from land, while the remaining 20% is the product of maritime activity.
The manufacture of plastic products continues to increase in the world, reaching today, according to Greenpeace, 500 million tons per year. Many of these are single-use plastic products such as bottles, bags, plates, cups, trays, etc. These products, when discarded, normally end up in a landfill or, in some cases, are recycled. And here we find an important part of the problem. Of all the plastic produced globally, only 9% is recycled. The remaining 81% is incinerated, polluting the air, ends up in landfills or directly into the environment. A very important percentage of the latter, most likely, ends up in the ocean.
What happens when plastic waste reach our seas and oceans?
It will take dozens of years for the plastic waste that reaches the sea to degrade. The degradation process depends on the type of plastic and the environmental conditions to which it is exposed. In the case of seas and oceans, UV radiation from sunlight is the main agent of degradation.
During the time necessary for its degradation, the plastic waste that reaches the ocean can cause irreparable damage to marine fauna. So much so that hundreds of species of marine organisms are directly affected by this pollution, being the cause of death of hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals every year.
Additionally, the plastic waste present in the oceans breaks down into micro-fragments or micro-plastics that are ingested by fish, birds and mammals, which causes these micro-plastics to also enter our diet.
What can we do about plastic waste?
There is no doubt that governments and manufacturers are primarily responsible for the current situation, especially when there is insufficient planning and investment for waste treatment. But we cannot ignore our role as consumers.
As little as it may seem, our small actions, such as depositing waste in the appropriate container or taking out the garbage at the correct time of day, are important.
As consumers, we can achieve a global impact by starting to reduce the use and consumption of plastic, especially those single-use products such as bottles, bags, plates, cups, trays, etc., which are responsible for almost half of the pollution of our seas and oceans.
Small daily actions can significantly contribute to reducing plastic in the seas and oceans. For example:
- Buy drinks in glass bottles, not plastic ones.
- Reduce the consumption of disposable plastic plates, cutlery, and cups.
- Replace plastic bags with a reusable cloth or fiber bags.
- When buying food, avoid products that have a plastic wrap.
- Opt for glass or metal containers instead of plastics.
- Avoid the use of cosmetics that have plastic microspheres in their formulation.