Plastic in the ocean – A Serial Killer

It was one of the first days where you could feel that summer is in the air. We decided to take a stroll down to the little sandy “beach” of the Tauranga Bridge Marina, where we are currently preparing Kahu for our circumnavigation of New Zealand. I was drawing flowers in the sand when T.A. suggested to clean up the beach from plastic. “Which plastic?”, I asked. It seemed to be a naive question as he instantly showed me three pieces of small plastic parts lying next to me. This plastic…:
 
Plastic seems to be one of the more noticeable aspects of our negative influence on the marine environment: The shoreline is littered with rubbish, and ocean adrift with floating bags, bottles or other pieces of plastic. Yes, it is by far one of the most visible signs of our impact and we need to have a significant discussion about how we deal with it. Last year, a study involving New Zealand researchers estimated that there are 244,000 tonnes of plastic waste floating on the ocean´s surface.
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Plastic beads

There are many different plastic products that affect the ocean – from packaging to microfibers. I want to focus on plastic beads as we in the Bay of Plenty recently have had events that discharged many tonnes of them into the coastal environment.
Plastic beads are used as the raw material of plastic injection production. It is versatile and easily malleable for transportation. Plastic beads are used as a standard material all around the world.
mans waste on the beach is deceptive
A beach from a distance looks natural and free of humans waste but take a look closer and you start to see the scale of our plastic problem.
If by accident plastic beads are released or discharged into the environment, it is invertible that they will make their way to the ocean. This material has a half-life of 50+ years depending on the conditions it is exposed to. This means that the material and its pollution will continue to float around the ocean long after we have died. This is probably what is most telling about plastic:

The plastic we pick up from the beach could have been the same plastic that you grandfather brought in the 70’s at the beginning of the industrial plastic age.

So when we look at a beach with what seems to be natural sand, driftwood, pumice and other rocks we can be fooled into thinking it is free of plastic. However, if we take a closer look at the makeup of the marine debris we find an interesting story…
Plastics in the marine environment.
The plastic beads may look natural against the sand but as you look closer the shine slowly becomes a contrast.
From a distance, it looks like any other beach you would expect to find, but as we look closer we start to see that something is not right there: We start to see the beads, these small and deceptive things, blending into the natural forms of the beach. If you take an even closer look you start to see the subtle difference, the shine of the plastic in the sand… Sadly this is not gold but a nightmare unfolding.
plastic accumulates in the marine environment
The darkened plastic beads are contaminated with other chemicals. These chemicals are attracted to the beads and make a toxic cocktail for marine life.
Plastic beads in nature
It is a long task to sort the plastic from the natural environment, but as you go through it a realization happens just at the scale of the problem.

The neverending cycle

So what is the problem with plastic? The problem comes in two parts:

The first is being the plastic itself. It resembles fish eggs and other marine organisms like salp and zooplankton. This makes it a target for the marine food web. It is consumed by fish and birds which mistake it for food. It then remains inside the animal as it is difficult to pass through the digestive system. After some time and accumulating enough plastic material, the animal suffers from digestive problems and dies. Or it is consumed by another animal, a larger fish of marine mammal, which the plastic then accumulates in the animals digestive system, until it also suffers from blockage and digestive dysfunction and dies… At this point, the decomposing body releases the plastic back into the environment to start the cycle all over again. You see the pattern?

Secondly, these beads being a raw plastic have an affinity to other poly-carbon products such as oils and chemicals. This means that they attract these toxicants too. So as the fish eats the plastic, it is also getting a dose of the chemical that the bead has come into contact with. You will sometimes find beads that are blackened by the other poly-carbons that it has drawn out of the environment from other pollutants. This then acts as another transportation means of infecting marine life that can lead to other issues such as metabolic dysfunction, reproductive dysfunction, conditioning and grow reductions, physical abnormalities and ultimately death of the animal.

Plastic kills
Marine life will continue to wash up dead animals on our beaches if we do not do something about plastic escaping into the marine environment.

Solutions

It is essential for all of us to actively engage in cleaning up what has been created and to remove the potential for more plastic to be released. Otherwise, our beach will continue to be littered with dying marine life. Otherwise, we constantly sign the death warrants of the marine life we all enjoy: The birds, seals, dolphins, fish and whales.
It will take a societal shift: We urgently need to choose not to buy or use plastic. Certainly, we cannot stop using plastic completely. It is everywhere and quite frankly a very practical material – especially when you live on a boat like we do. But we can and have to be mindful that the plastic we use is reusable, recyclable and remains within the human system instead of being released or discarded into the environment.
We can do this, and we can do it today.
You can find more about this topic here:

These organizations and nonprofits inspire by showing how:

5 thoughts on “Plastic in the ocean – A Serial Killer

  1. We are destroying ourselves with this obsession with and dependence on plastic. The amount of plastic bits in our waterways is disturbing…and so so wrong. Very disheartening.

    1. It’s not a time to be dishartened as we can see that the task and challenge is great. These are more moments that stand in history to grow us as human beings collectively. We need to strive to innovate and restore the function of the marine environment. To give the environment the integrity to provide services back again. The ocean is one of those productive spaces where if we give it space it will restore and as it restores so will our relationship.

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