Fresh alarm over marine ‘plastic smog’

Volunteers sift through sand to collect microplastics on Laida beach in the Spanish Basque village of Ibarrangelu on June 8, 2019 as part of a cleanup campaign to mark World Oceans Day. (PHOTO / AFP)

Walk along any beach in the world, no matter how isolated, you will find plastic of some kind washed up on the shoreline, offering a reminder of the reckless throw-away culture of the present-day world.

Now, a study has sounded a fresh warning on the damage caused to the marine ecosystem due to discarded plastics, which eventually has a bearing on human health due to the seafood we consume.   

In a paper titled ‘A growing plastic smog’, published on March 8 in PlosOne, a peer reviewed science, engineering and medicine research journal, researchers called on governments around the world to take sweeping action to address the “unprecedented plastic pollution” of the world’s oceans

In a paper titled ‘A growing plastic smog’, published on March 8 in PlosOne, a peer reviewed science, engineering and medicine research journal, researchers called on governments around the world to take sweeping action to address the “unprecedented plastic pollution” of the world’s oceans.

The call came as they determined that around 170 trillion particles of plastic are floating in the world’s oceans. And that is a conservative estimate.

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The plastics break down over time into minute particles that cannot be detected by the naked eye but find their way into the marine ecosystem and into the seafood humans consume.

No one knows for certain what the long-term damage will be to marine life and humans, but the study placed much of the blame on the plastics industry for failing to recycle or design for recyclability.

Charlene Trestrail, research associate at the University of Technology Sydney and technical advisor for environmental organization Plastic Oceans Australasia, said the study shows just how big the problem is and one which “we have been underestimating”.

“Microplastics are a problem because they are mistaken for food and eaten by small marine animals, like mussels, oysters, and shrimp,” she said. 

“Once eaten, microplastics can wreak havoc on an animal’s internal tissues,” Trestrail said, noting that they “interfere with the production of digestive enzymes in the stomach, damage the intestines, and leak potentially harmful chemicals inside animals’ digestive tracts”.

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Paul Harvey, an environmental scientist and author of The Plasticology Project, a book on the plastics pollution crisis, said the numbers in the latest study are “staggeringly phenomenal” and almost “beyond comprehension”.

“Globally, we have reached a point where we can no longer ignore the plastic pollution pandemic that is infecting our oceans,” he said.

“This research shows us that beach clean-ups and citizen science projects that focus on the environmental fate of plastics have little impact on solving the enormity of the plastic problem. It is time for policymakers, governments, and businesses to wake up and take the issue seriously,” Harvey said.

Lead author of the study and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute in California Marcus Eriksen said in a statement that the findings were a “stark warning that we must act now at a global scale”.

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“We've found an alarming trend of exponential growth of microplastics in the global ocean since the millennium, reaching over 170 trillion plastic particles,” Eriksen said. “The exponential increase in microplastics across the world’s oceans” makes it imperative to “usher in an age of corporate responsibility for the entire life of the things they make”.

“Clean-up is futile if we continue to produce plastic at the current rate, and we have heard about recycling for too long while the plastic industry simultaneously rejects any commitments to buy recycled material or design for recyclability. It’s time to address the plastic problem at the source.”

Oliver Jones, a professor of analytical chemistry at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said the study is part research and part call-to-action on the issue of plastics in the oceans. 

“Much as we tend to hate plastics, we might also remember that they are made for a reason, and they do have benefits. They protect our food from spoilage for instance and insulate our homes, and, while we don’t do a good job of it, they can be recycled,” Jones said. 

“That said, I do agree with the authors that plastics in the environment is an important issue that isn’t going away and as such is something that the global scientific community, industry, and politicians should start to work together on solving sooner rather than later.”

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The study involved scientists from the United States, Sweden, Chile and Australia who examined previously published and new data on floating plastic pollution pertaining to 1979-2019 from 11,777 stations across the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian, and Mediterranean regions.

“The situation is much worse than expected,” said co-author Patricia Villarrubia-Gomez, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden. 

“In 2014, it was estimated that there were 5 trillion plastic particles in the ocean. Now, less than 10 years later, we're up at 170 trillion.”

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