Plastic is a problem for our wildlife on both a local and global scale, but there are things we can all do to help.
Plastic pollution has hit the headlines recently. I’m sure we all do our bit to recycle our plastic pots and bottles, use our bag for life when we shop and if possible cut down on products with excessive plastic packaging. The problem is that plastic is so inextricably linked with modern-day life that we couldn’t avoid using it even if we wanted to. Plastic packaging does have enormous societal benefits in terms of convenience and food safety but the single-use plastic container and the myriad other plastic products we consume and discard every day are storing up enormous problems for the planet – and for us. We see plastic litter all around us – on our nature reserves it’s trapped in hedgerows, it’s discarded along our county’s roadsides, but it is especially problematic in the marine environment. A walk along any beach in the UK is bound to present us with a shoreline strewn with everything from plastic bottles to flip flops and disposable cigarette lighters to cotton buds. The statistics around plastic pollution in the marine environment are truly staggering, but because we do not see it for ourselves on our doorstep it is easy to underestimate the scale of the problem. And it is not going to go away any time soon, as production is on the increase. Globally, production of plastic exceeds 300 million tonnes each year and it is likely that as much plastic will be produced in the next eight years as in the whole of the 20th century. Much of it escapes the waste process system and eventually ends up in the sea as plastic pollution. One of the remarkable stories about plastic pollution in the oceans is the way that it can accumulate as currents bring it together over time from all parts of the globe. The most famous accumulation is in the north Pacific between California and Hawaii and is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The heart of the garbage patch is thought to be around 386,000 square miles in extent, with the periphery spanning a further 1,351,000 square miles. The dimensions of this morass of waste are continually morphing, caught in one of the ocean’s huge rotating currents forming a gigantic soup of plastic waste. It is estimated that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. And this plastic pollution takes its toll on marine wildlife. Thousands of seabirds die every year having ingested or become entangled in plastic litter. Of all marine creatures, 693 species are documented as having encountered plastic debris, with nearly 400 involving entanglement and ingestion. However, in addition to the plastic litter that is so readily visible in the oceans and of great danger to wildlife, there is a more insidious plastic product to worry about – microbeads and microfibres. Microbeads are small plastic beads often incorporated into everyday soaps, toothpastes and cosmetics which, being too small to be captured by treatment works, eventually end up in the sea. And there are lots of them about. In a 2015 study it was estimated that New York State alone dumps 19 tonnes of microbeads down the drain.
This article was first published in Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife magazine in spring 2018.