Plastics that have been broken down into small pieces are called microplastics. They enter the ocean through common means of pollution such as littering from ships or discharge from rivers that drain into the oceans. The plastics that enter the oceans may then be broken down by bacteria into small pieces. Different substances have different rates of decomposition, and plastic has one of the longest: plastic bottles take 450 years to decompose. By comparison, cigarette butts decompose in 1-5 years, disposable diapers in 450 years, aluminum cans in 200 years, tin cans in 50 years, fishing lines in 600 years, Styrofoam cups in 50 years, and apple cores in 2 months.
Littering into oceans has serious environmental, social, and economic consequences. Managing marine litter is key to reducing the amount of plastic in the oceans. Using alternative materials, for example, will greatly reduce the prevalence of plastics in the oceans. However, improving wastewater and solid waste collection and management are the most necessary short-term solutions to reduce marine littering, especially in developing countries. Waste is a global issue and poses a serious threat to the public and the environment. Uncollected waste becomes a breeding place for vector borne diseases, and a lack of organized litter collection can lead to flooding when drains are blocked by plastics. A large part of marine litter originates from poor waste management and primarily affects economically disadvantaged populations in coastal areas. The main challenges to reduce marine litter include preventing illegal dumping, ensuring access for all to waste collection services, and implementing the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Tackling the problem of marine litter requires the stimulation of the public to undertake particular actions. These actions range from the introduction of new technologies, changes in consumer behavior, and implementation and enforcement of various plans, policies, and laws, to a full-scale revision of current practices of production, use, and management of waste. This implies active involvement of consumers, producers, policymakers, managers, inhabitants, tourists, industries, and companies.
There are other options to solve the plastic menace, such as the use of biodegradable plastics. Bio-plastics are made of renewable materials like corn. However, the use of bio-plastics is still up for debate. There have been interventions targeting the prevention of marine litter that have involved various actors. Many initiatives have been started by local action groups who organize clean-ups at beaches and river shores. A recent cleanup was held by a local organization called Stand Up and Shout at the beaches of the Indian Ocean. If the problem of marine litter is to be solved, there has to exist coordination of policies and practices at sea, along the coast and riverine systems, and on land.
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