Plastic pollution: what is it doing to our oceans?

As I settled down to watch the new Netflix documentary ‘Chasing Coral’, the follow up to ‘Chasing Ice’ I was feeling a little apprehensive about what I would learn. I knew one thing for sure, I was very excited to see the acclaimed camera skills, stunning colours of the ocean, and fascinating sea creatures, but what I would discover underneath all that was the very visual realisation of what is happening beneath the ocean, a place that not many of us fully understand.

Whilst the main reason behind the dramatic devastation of the corals in the documentary was due to coral bleaching caused by climate change, another key influence that is destroying our oceans is plastic. And I believe that reducing our plastic consumption is something that each of us can do very easily, which can make a huge impact. So that is what I am going to discuss today.

Like most people, I knew that plastic is rapidly damaging our planet, I knew that we do not use the planet’s natural resources sustainably enough, and I knew that there are many alternatives to plastic that we are not utilising. But until recently I did not fully understand the full extent of the damage that using so much plastic is doing to our planet. And the major factor that makes plastic pollution so damaging is the fact that it simply does not break down, and actually takes thousands of years for the smallest plastic product to decay.

What is plastic pollution?

When many of us think about the word ‘pollution’ we often envisage gas, fumes and smoke; the type of things that are caused by air pollution from excessive use of fossil fuels. But in fact, pollution is officially defined as “the introduction of harmful substances or products into the environment.” This leads us to understand that not only can an accumulation of any given product become pollution, but also that volumes of plastic have become so high on our planet that they are severely damaging our planet.

The recent news that an estimated 38 million pieces of plastic were discovered on an island almost entirely untouched by humans was a serious wake up call. Henderson Island is a tiny, uninhabited island located in the eastern South Pacific, and despite being one of the world’s most remote places, it was recently found to contain 99.8% pollution plastic, which equals to almost 18 tonnes.

Whilst scientists thought that the fact that this island is located in such a remote part of the world would safeguard it from plastic pollution, sadly this was not the case. Although no people live on the island, it is home to many creatures that are essential to the ecosystem, but are seriously affected by the plastic that has washed up in their home. Hundreds of crabs were found to be living in discarded plastic items such as bottle caps, and even a doll’s head.

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What is plastic doing to our wildlife?

Currently, plastic pollution statistics state that one rubbish truck full of plastic is being dumped into the ocean every single minute. On top of this, when plastic is taken to rubbish dumps and landfill sites, the pollutants that are in the plastics eventually get released into the surrounding earth, which over time affects both wildlife and ground water leading to the ocean for many years.

While we have all seen photos of various fish in the ocean being tangled in plastic rubbish, what we don’t often realise is that every single life in the ocean is affected by plastic pollution. Tiny organisms such as plankton are ingesting plastic, which poisons their system. This then results in a knock-on effect for all of the sea-life that rely on plankton for their own source of food, and so forth down the food chain, even up to the fish that we are consuming each day.

How does this affect us?

Each one of us is dependent on the health of the sea. Our oceans control the weather, climate, and are a source of life in itself. The huge body of water that covers 71% of our planet is what makes our planet unique within the universe. On top of this, our oceans contain 97% of the Earth’s water that is crucial for our survival, as well as being the main source of food for millions of people around the world.  On our planet, just our reefs alone are a source of income for over 500 million people.

What can we do about it?

Many people are under the illusion that because plastic is everywhere, we cannot avoid using it. And whilst there are currently no alternatives to some essential products that we use, there are many small and simple changes that we can all put in place to make a huge difference. Some examples of these are:

  • Use foldable cloth bags when you go shopping instead of disposable plastic ones
  • Don’t purchase items that come with lots of unnecessary plastic packaging
  • Ditch the disposable water bottles and instead purchase a refillable one
  • Be smart, and think ahead. When you decide to get lunch out, ask yourself whether you really need the plastic knife, fork and spoon that they hand out to you. Instead, can you use cutlery from your work canteen or bring in your own?
  • Recycle everything that you can. Look up the type of plastics that your local council allow you to recycle and make sure you stick to it
  • Purchase biodegradable products whenever you can. There are currently many every day items with these sustainable alternatives on the market, from cutlery to toothbrushes.

It is essential that we urgently reduce our plastic consumption, because as Underwater Photographer and founder of The Ocean Agency, Richard Vevers, stated in Chasing Coral, “Without a healthy ocean we do not have a healthy planet”.

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