Plastic pollution in the sea / Personal Writing / 11/21/2019

Around 10 million tons of plastic waste flood the world’s oceans every year. To stop littering, politicians, industry and consumers must pull together. Because the plastic can no longer be fished out. The sea has become one of the dirtiest places in the world. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, straws and toothbrushes float in five large garbage strudels. Real plastic garbage waves are washed up on the beaches. If we do nothing about it, by 2050 there will be more plastic swimming in the sea than fish. More than 663 animal species are directly affected by the waste catastrophe. Every year about one million seabirds and one hundred thousand marine mammals die from littering. They often confuse plastic parts with food and then starve to death with a full stomach. Whales, dolphins and turtles get caught in six-pack carriers and old fishing nets and drown in agony.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), up to 18,000 plastic parts of various sizes float on every square kilometre of sea surface. But what we see is only the top of the garbage mountain, more than 70 percent of the waste swims in deeper layers of water or sinks to the seabed. It is therefore impossible to remove plastic waste from the sea. And plastic has come to stay. In the worst case, it only degrades after several hundred years. External factors such as light, temperature and mechanical stress cause plastics to become brittle over time and break down into ever smaller fragments known as microplastics. The small plastic particles are particularly dangerous because they not only contain toxic additives, but also attract other environmental toxins from the environment such as magnets. How does the garbage get into the sea? On the one hand, shipping, fishing and the offshore industry contribute to marine garbage: Year after year, 20,000 tons of waste are transported in this way to the North Sea alone. A much bigger role, however, is played by the waste that comes from the country – plastic waste that is disposed of carelessly in the environment. Plastic bags, foils or plastic bottles are particularly light. If you leave them in the landscape, they are often caught by wind and rain and washed into the sea as blow trash over the streams and rivers. Even microplastics, which are discharged into wastewater via cosmetics and cleaning agents or when washing synthetic clothing, find their way into the oceans – only a part can be filtered out by modern wastewater treatment plants.

Plastic in the environment

Plastic is an environmental problem not only in the sea, but also in the soil. The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) estimates that microplastic pollution on land is up to 32 times higher than in the oceans. The plastic gets into the soil through tire abrasion, plastics used in agriculture and fertilizing with compost contaminated with microplastics. Far too often, plastic bags and other plastic parts are incorrectly disposed of in organic waste and end up as microplastics in the fields. In addition there is the entry about the rain water. Because microplastics also buzz around in the air, for example microfibre made of synthetic clothing. A recent study in Paris, for example, counted around 300 particles per square meter per day.

What can we do?

It is actually quite simple: waste that is not produced does not end up in the sea. There are many ways to avoid waste in everyday life: For example, through unpacked shopping, the use of a returnable cup for coffee to go or the deliberate use of a returnable bottle in the supermarket. Shopping can be transported in a backpack or bicycle basket and a foldable reusable bag for the spontaneous detour via the weekly market fits in any jacket pocket.

Is plastic environmentally friendly?

Nowadays, there are more and more plastic products and packaging that are advertised with terms such as biodegradable or compostable. But is bioplastics really a solution? Unfortunately, no, because bioplastics usually have no overall ecological advantage over conventional plastics. Biodegradability usually refers to laboratory conditions – in the landscape or in cold salt water, bioplastics normally do not degrade faster than conventional plastics. Also due to the consumption of resources in production, the replacement of a disposable product by another disposable product – regardless of the material – is not the solution. Anyone who wants to behave ecologically should avoid waste and use reusable packaging.