Plastic is ubiquitous in the environment, and it lasts forever. Every single plastic item ever manufactured still exists somewhere – on land, in soil, in the ocean, in the stomachs of seabirds, in the tissues of fish and other marine life, and in the bodies of human beings. Plastic residue will persist in the environment for anywhere between hundreds to thousands of years, depending on the type of plastic. Even though plastic is derived from oil, a natural substance formed from the decaying bodies of carbon-rich plants and animals, plastic cannot completely biodegrade, and will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces.
Large pieces of plastic in the ocean micro-fragment into smaller pieces called micro-plastic particles and become part of the marine food chain. Within the next fifty years, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. As consumers, we use millions of tonnes of plastic every year, although we can refuse to participate in this consumption, by changing our behaviour, and finding alternatives to plastic.
Most marine debris in the ocean is land-based plastic, which harms marine wildlife, the marine environment, and ultimately, human beings. The plastic we dump into the ocean comes back to haunt us, like a karmic debt that must be repaid, when we eat fish that has accidentally ingested plastic debris or mistaken it for food. Studies show toxins from marine plastic debris are in our seafood. If we poison the fish, we poison ourselves.
Marine wildlife – whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seals, fish, albatross – may ingest or become caught in plastic debris, causing great damage – life-threatening entanglements, injuries to flukes, fins and flippers, suffocation, choking, intestinal damage from blocked digestive systems, puncturing of major internal organs, inability to take in food, starvation and death.
More than 100,000 marine creatures die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in disposable plastic bags, including seabirds, seals, whales, dolphins and turtles.
Cetaceans have washed up on beaches around the world with stomachs full of plastic debris. In 2014, a bottlenose dolphin off the coast of Cork, Ireland died from a plastic six-pack ring wrapped around its rostrum. In early 2016, thirteen sperm whales washed up on a beach in the North Sea off the coast of Germany. Post-necropsy, it was revealed four of the whales’ stomachs contained large amounts of plastic waste, although it’s believed the plastic debris didn’t cause the stranding.
In 2013, researchers at The University of Queensland published a meta-analysis of 37 studies between 1985 and 2012, based on data collected between 1900 and 2011 on ingestion of plastic debris by endangered species of green sea turtles. The results showed an increase in the amount of plastic debris ingested by turtles, that were significantly more likely to ingest plastic debris than they were 25 years ago.
Another 2015 study by University of Queensland researchers found that approximately 52% of marine turtles worldwide have ingested plastic debris, with often fatal consequences. Marine turtle populations inhabiting the ocean regions off the Australian east coast, North America and Southern Africa, were most at risk.
Photographer Chris Jordan’s images of dead albatross chicks with stomachs full of plastic rubbish reveal the extent and severity of the plastic issue. We can no longer ignore the consequences of our actions.
I’ve always advocated a naturopathic approach to problems – prevent the disease (plastic debris in the ocean) from occurring at the source (don’t use plastic), not treat the symptoms of the disease once it has taken hold (impacts of plastic debris on marine wildlife).
I think of my consumption in terms of how my choices impact the marine environment, and how my use of a product or service harms or helps the ocean, and this has determined my patterns and levels of consumption and behaviour. I’ve implemented many changes in my life already, but I know I can do better, and I’m ready to take the next step in my plastic-free journey.
This year I signed up for Plastic Free July, an Australian campaign and initiative that aims to raise awareness about the impact of plastic on the environment. You can register your interest to participate in the challenge and make the commitment to refuse single-use, disposable plastic products for one month.
The initiative is a great idea to get us thinking about our plastic consumption and to give being plastic-free a go for a month. This small taste of living plastic-free is a chance for us to see what’s possible and may serve as a launching pad for permanent behavioural change.
The Plastic Free July challenge targets the ‘Big 4’ of single-use, disposable plastics – bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws. I haven’t bought water in plastic bottles for some time, don’t drink coffee or use straws, and rarely get caught without my cloth bags.
I purchase whole loaves of bread from an artisanal bakery and now shop at The Source Bulk Foods. My Plastic Free July experience this year is about finding more information, exploring new ideas, and researching alternatives to use even less plastic than I already do.
I have skin care products in plastic containers that were purchased in bulk, and when I’ve used them I will experiment with plastic-free or unpackaged skin care. I prefer glass bottles, but they are sealed with plastic lids.
I’m researching my options and want to simplify my skin care range to ten products. I want to move away from synthetics towards natural fibres – cotton, wool, linen, bamboo, hemp, agave. I will share new discoveries in this blog along the way.
We have council recycling facilities in Australia, yet less than half of all plastic waste is recycled. The only solution is to refuse single-use and disposable plastics, otherwise the waste will more than likely end up in landfill, or in the ocean, and harm our marine wildlife.
There are alternative products available in bulk, loose or in non-plastic packaging. It’s up to all of us to seek out these products, support Plastic Free July and role model a plastic-free life.
© 2016 Environmental Warrior
Photo by verteezy on Unsplash