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22 March, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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The ocean is nature’s number one influencer but thanks to plastic, its health is in freefall

Lucy Siegle
The ocean is nature’s number one influencer but thanks to plastic, its health is in freefall

In writing about the pressure we humans put on this beautiful planet, I come across many tragic concepts that crystallise this unequal and potentially catastrophic relationship. One of the most tragic I’ve discovered is that of the shifting baseline. Each generation has a mental image of a baseline of how the environment around them looked in their youth; a sort of cognitive touchstone. In our minds, we compare any change in our environment and our lives to this baseline. Younger generations therefore accept as normal a world that, to older generations, seems tainted and degraded. Over the passage of time, this phenomenon means that we fail to notice when we lose important habitats and species are in freefall.

It’s no surprise that the phrase was adopted to describe the declining health of our oceans by marine conservation professor Callum Roberts, of the UK’s University of York. In common with many ocean scientists and lovers of the Big Blue, he felt an urgent need to push back against “social amnesia”. We cannot accept a degraded ocean. It must not become normalised.

The star of a billion holiday brochures, the ocean is nature’s number one influencer. It can be hard to acknowledge that under the surface its health is in freefall. But ocean plastic is the breakthrough issue.

Only last week, a young whale washed up dead on the shores of Davao City in the Philippines after swallowing a staggering 40 kilograms of plastic, which, according to the biologists who conducted an autopsy, was “the most amount of plastic we have ever seen in a whale”. Last year, a whale died in Thai waters after ingesting 80 plastic bags. Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II is thought to be one of the most-watched television programmes ever. Just 15 minutes of the epic natural history show actually focuses on the scourge of plastics in the ocean. But seeing the heart-wrenching footage that connects an infant whale death to the ingestion of plastic was enough. In countries where the show aired, huge segments of the population asked themselves: “What on earth are we doing to our oceans?”

This month’s World Ocean Summit in Abu Dhabi heard that the scourge of plastic pollution is far from the only issue affecting ocean health. Stress is exerted by everything from fishing and excavation to ocean heatwaves that cause the underwater equivalent of forest fires. But plastic can be seen as the (synthetic) straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since the 1950s – when plastic became a commercial reality – 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been created and used. It has quickly dominated our supply chains, particularly where groceries are concerned. It has been called the “skin of commerce”, a moniker that aptly describes how polymers swathe everything from soap and fish steaks to coconuts (which come in their own robust, fibrous shell, rendering plastic unnecessary).

The cost has been high. Incredibly 79 per cent of all of that plastic is still with us on the planet, in the form of pollution. This is shocking but unsurprising. The material we have become dependent on takes monomers from oil and uses chemistry to convert them into polymers – long chemical chains that are tough and very hard to break down. But the same qualities that made plastic beloved and have enabled stuff like transatlantic communications and space travel have proven to be a nightmare, especially transposed into everyday, consumer society. Plastic is almost impossible to throw away. There is no “away”. It is engineered to last for hundreds of years. Then there’s the volume, in almost every country on earth, from Somaliland to hotspots of consumerism like the UK; plastic waste overwhelms efforts to collect it.

Every year we add to this problem. This year the world will produce more than 320 million tonnes of new plastic from virgin oil. Around 12 million tonnes will end up in the ocean, adding to existing deposits. An entire plastic bag has been shown drifting around the Mariana Trench – the deepest trench in all the seas. Meanwhile gruesome deposits of plastic are held in the bellies of dead seabirds and whales and in our own bodies as plastics enter the food chain, beginning with microscopic organisms like zooplankton.

But the most spectacular concentration of plastic is found in gyres, circulating ocean currents which occur when airflows move from the tropics to polar regions, creating a clockwise, rotating air mass, driving oceanic surface currents in the same direction. Once the detritus of our plastic-dominated lives enters ocean currents, buoyant plastic settles in islands of trash that float just above the surface. It is here that the plastic debris of our throwaway lives becomes dramatically visible.

Of all the plastic at sea, the concentration in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most fabled and possibly the most dense soup of plastic.

The patch has been known about for decades but has grown at a shocking rate. Research published last year in the scientific journal Nature, based on the most detailed trawl of the area, found that it was 16 times bigger than previously thought, and stretched across 600,000 square miles of ocean, containing 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish, 99.9 per cent of which are plastic. The oldest item from the patch was found to be 40 years old.

The writer specialises on ethical

living practices

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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