After performing an autopsy on a young sperm whale that washed onto Spanish shores in February, scientists have confirmed that the whale likely died after consuming too much plastic waste and other rubbish that prohibited digestion and caused inflammation, urgently highlighting the devastating effect human trash is having on the environment and marine life.
A significant amount of human rubbish ends up in our oceans and plastic waste in particular poses a great risk to the ocean, marine life, and sustainability of the Earth. Across the globe, people throw out an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of waste and ten million tonnes of plastic every year. Much of this plastic waste ends up in the ocean along with plastic waste from fishing industries. The biggest issue with plastic is its incredibly slow rate of biodegradation. While different forms of plastic degrade at different rates, many can take decades and in some cases hundreds of years to completely degrade and even then, remaining toxins from the plastic can still harm the environment and wildlife, either through direct ingestion of plastic toxins or else ingestion through the food chain (which can also lead to human consumption of plastic-laden fish).
Currently, one of the largest known areas of plastic waste in the ocean – dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – contains roughly 87,000 tonnes of plastic in the North Pacific Ocean and has been growing steadily since its discovery in the 1980s. Although difficult to determine its size, this “patch” is made up mostly of smaller pieces of plastic that have broken down to small particles, although there are also several larger plastic items and rubbish. This patch and the other four similar areas located in the world’s major ocean gyres, emphasize the long-lasting effects plastic can have on the environment and marine life due to its inability to biodegrade quickly.
The onus to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering our oceans is on us as individual consumers, as business leaders, and as politicians, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to reduce our consumption of single-use plastic items. Many supermarkets and shops in cities across the world have either banned single-use plastic bags or else charge consumers for plastic bags, and for many restaurants, bars, and cafes, the same applies to single-use plastic straws. Using more biodegradable materials where they are available can also help reduce plastic waste.
Additionally, there are a number of environmental groups and agencies that are working to reduce waste and clean up existing ocean areas and beaches; and a number of these projects involve crowdsourcing and volunteering.
However, despite these efforts, there is still more than can be done to ensure the amount of plastic waste in our oceans does not increase over the next decade, 50 years, and 100 years. While limiting the amount of single-use plastic items we consume is necessary, so are recycling, reusing, and better waste management to ensure less waste ends up in the ocean.
While the plastic waste that is already in the ocean – particularly micro-plastics that have broken down – cannot be easily reduced, and simply banning plastic bags will not immediately change our oceans drastically, urgent action still needs to take place now in order to sustain the Earth for future generations and ensure that human waste production does not outpace our ability to efficiently manage waste.