Editor’s Note: Before reading another dismal report on the conditions our ocean’s face, some communities are trying to stop one use plastics within their communites, such as this report from Surfrider Foundation:
Supermarkets, pharmacies and certain retail stores in Long Beach, CA will no longer be allowed to distribute certain types of plastic bags under an ordinance approved last week by the local City Council. In addition to the ban on plastic bags, stores that want to offer recyclable paper bags would be required to charge 10 cents per bag to cover their costs and to discourage shoppers from using the paper bags.
Overfishing, oil slicks, acidification — the world’s oceans, which cover 71 percent of the planet’s surface, face plenty of environmental problems. As I note in this Green Column, we’ve added another serious one to the list: the vast amount of trash, 80 percent of it plastic, that ends up in the seas from year to year.
Actually, scientists and environmental campaigners have been aware of the mounting volumes of plastic in the seas since the 1970s. But over the last two or three years, the phenomenon has gained wider attention, stirring concern among policymakers in the United States and Europe.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for one, says that marine debris ‘‘has become one of the most pervasive pollution problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways.’’ And the European Union’s commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, Maria Damanaki, recently said that the pollution of the Mediterranean had reached ‘‘alarming proportions.’’
Numerous projects have sprung up to combat the problem, including efforts to recycle trash recovered from the seas and campaigns to raise public awareness.
In the United States, NOAA initiated a Marine Debris Tracker mobile application in cooperation with the University of Georgia that enables users to report on trash spotted on coastlines and waterways.
A charity known as Plastic Oceans is working on a major documentary on the issue. Endorsed by the environmental grandees David Attenborough and Sylvia Earle, it is expected to be released by early 2013. And in Europe, Ms. Damanaki recently proposed paying fishermen to ‘‘fish for litter’’ to combat the pollution in the Mediterranean.
The problem is not just one of unsightliness, or of sea life getting caught up in plastic grocery bags or choking on plastic bottle tops or cigarette lighters.
There are also the tiny fragments formed by disintegrating items. Plastic does not fully biodegrade like wood or cardboard, noted Peter Kershaw of the British marine science center Cefas, who advises the United Nations on marine environmental protection issues. For plastic to biodegrade, you need conditions that are really found only in industrial composters and landfills, including high temperatures.
‘‘You don’t have those conditions in the middle of the sea,’’ he said. Instead, the plastic trash eventually breaks up into billions of fragments that hover below the surface in vast, soupy patches in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
Easily swallowed by marine life and prone to absorbing contaminants in
the water, this gunk is now a key focus of scientific concern, with some researchers worrying that it could end up in the food chain. ‘‘It is everywhere and in every water sample that we have collected since 1999,’’ said Marieta Francis, executive director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in California.
Because these ‘‘microplastics’’ are far harder to remove from the sea than chunks of packaging and containers, the main focus has to be preventing more plastic from reaching the oceans in the first place, experts say.
Global plastics production is expected to continue to rise inexorably from the estimated 250 million tons churned out annually now. One critical solution advanced by experts is better recycling, more re-use of containers and packaging and less waste: do cookies and toilet rolls really need to come individually wrapped in plastic, as they are here in Hong Kong, where I live?
Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this highly entertaining and educational ‘‘mockumentary’’ on the life cycle of the plastic bag and its long trip to the oceans. Produced by the California-based group Heal the Bay last year and narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons, the clip has had more than 1.4 million views on YouTube.