Once upon a time, the ocean was considered the last place where we could still find an undisturbed environment. This was before the plague of man-made plastic trash flooded the seas. During my travels, I have realized that everything has changed. There is scarcely a place on Earth where plastic litter is not present. Standing on the decks of our research ship, miles away from any large urban areas, we have retrieved plastic from the deepest parts of the sea.
The increasing rate of plastic pollution is alarming. The production of plastic doubles every decade, and ever-increasing amounts of trash make their way to the seas—more than 6 million tons per year, according to the UN Environment Program. Ultimately, we are responsible for the plastic footprint in our ocean.
In North America, many people have heard about the Pacific Garbage Patch, which Project Kaisei, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, NOAA, and others have recently studied. In the North Sea, where I have spent time on DEEPWAVE expeditions, the amount of trash found on our beaches is steadily increasing. On average, 712 pieces of refuse are found per 100 meters (or roughly 330 feet) of coastline. This quantity has remained high during the last ten years, despite an international agreement to protect the marine environment in the north Atlantic and reduce the flood of plastic refuse through tighter laws. On our recent Marine Litter Watch Expedition, I saw the problem first-hand as we watched freshly deposited blue garbage bags and their contents float at the surface in shipping routes through the North Sea—the “motorways of the sea.”
There are various sources of plastic litter entering our seas: shipping, tourism, and fishing to name but a few. Countless loopholes in marine law even legalize this. The consequences for the ocean’s inhabitants are devastating. Thousands of sea animals die in agony through the deadly flotsam of our consumer society. There are at least 138 marine species that regularly entangle themselves in this rubbish, including 6 types of sea turtles, 51 sea bird species, and 32 kinds of marine mammals. The problem of marine refuse is therefore interconnected with the loss of biological diversity.
Plastic and other trash travel everywhere the waves and currents carry them, irrespective of political boundaries. Costly and manpower-intensive litter-gathering activities on beaches (such as the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-Up this Saturday) and in the water (such as the Fishing for Litter program) are a practical first step toward a solution. However in the long-term, a serious effort must be made at the source in order to prevent harmful material from reaching the sea at all.
“No more trash in the ocean” must therefore be our highest priority.
Raising public awareness about the problem is critical. If we all start by educating ourselves and sharing the messages with those around us, the issue will receive more attention—and hopefully action.
We are just as endangered by marine litter as the sea inhabitants themselves. None of us can afford to ignore this problem.