POSE GREATER THREAT TO OCEANS
Oceans are choking on millions of plastic water bottles,
cups, straws and single use plastic bags.
By Zipporah Musau
Renowned American oceanographer Sylvia Earle has studied the sea
extensively for more than 60 years, and logged more than 7,000 hours researching
and filming marine life since her first dive at age 16.
Ms. Earle, who in the 1980s was the first woman chief scientist of
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, now faces a challenge
greater than the round-the-world oceanographic cruise she took in 1964 or the
1970 experiment for which she, and her all-female crew, spent two weeks in an
underwater capsule on a coral reef.
Ms. Earle is rallying the world to save the seas, which face the
deadliest threats to their existence — as do the millions of world citizens
whose survival depends on them.
From her bully pulpit, Ms. Earle warns that sea life is being
destroyed from every direction, by a combination of overfishing, rising
temperatures and plastic waste. She notes that since the 1950s, the world has
lost 50% of its global coral reefs and 90% of its big fish.
Oceans are choking on
plastic junk — millions of tonnes of water bottles, soda bottles, drinking
straws and single use plastic bags. Worse still, what we see floating on the
surface accounts for only 5% of all the plastic litter that has been dumped
into the sea. According to Ocean Conservancy, a US environmental non-profit,
the other 95% is beneath the surface, where it strangles underwater creatures
and wrecks aquatic ecosystems.
“Oceans are now clogged with plastics, especially discarded fishing
gear and single-use plastics,” Ms. Earle told Africa Renewal in
Today the world is producing 20 times more plastics than 40 years
ago. This means that each year more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in
the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism and marine
ecosystems. Only less than 14% of all plastic is recyclable, and it is high
time someone came up with an innovation or technology to deal with the
remaining 86%, which could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues, according to a
recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which works with business,
government and academia to build an economy that is restorative.
Sadly, plastic waste that finds its way into the ocean will remain
there for hundreds of years because plastic does not rot. In fact, plastic is
so durable that the United States Environmental Protection Agency says, “Every
bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Once it gets in the seas, plastic waste
leaches chemicals, many of them toxic, into the seas.
“Up to 80% of all litter in our oceans is made of plastic. At the
rate at which we are dumping items such as plastic bottles, bags, cups and
straws after a single use, by 2050 we will have more plastics in the oceans
than fish,” warns the United Nations Environment, the UN agency mandated to
protect the environment.
Because of its low density, plastic litter is easily transported
over long distances from source areas. The ocean undercurrents scatter it to
every corner of the earth, some of it floating on the oceans and others sinking
to the seabed.
According to the US-based Center for Biological Diversity, there
are “15–51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans — from the equator
to the poles, from Arctic ice sheets to the sea floor.” Emerging research
suggests that not one square mile of ocean surface anywhere on earth is free of
Making matters worse, the cosmetics industry now adds tiny plastic
beads called “microbeads” to hundreds of toiletries, such as body and facial
scrubs and even toothpaste. These tiny particles easily go through water
filtration and drainage systems to end up in the sea, where they are ingested
by fish and seabirds. UN Environment warns that about 99% of all seabirds will
have ingested plastic by 2050 if nothing is done to reverse the trend.
Africa has not been spared the plastic menace. Even though most of
the plastic trash in Africa comes from outside the continent, African cities
and coastal towns are grappling with their own mountains of garbage, mostly
plastic that ends up in the ocean. Ms. Earle cited the islands in the northwest
Indian Ocean as the most affected by plastic marine litter in Africa.
Plastics in the ocean
kill or harm more than 300,000 marine animals every year, said Ms. Earle. Some
creatures get entangled in the plastic debris, while others like seabirds,
turtles, fish, oysters and mussels ingest the plastics, which end up clogging
their digestive systems and causing death. Fish and birds mistake smaller
plastic particles for food and feed on them in enormous quantities.
“When the young birds eventually die, you can literally see small
balls of plastics next to their skeletons after the body decomposes,” Ms. Earle
The plastic menace has become so dire that in February the UN
launched the Clean Seas campaign at the Economist’s World
Ocean Summit in Bali, Indonesia. This is a global effort to convince
governments to pass plastic reduction policies, and industry to minimize
plastic packaging and redesign its products. The UN is also urging consumers to
change their plastic disposal habits before irreversible damage is done to the
“It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights
our oceans. Plastic pollution is surfing onto beaches, settling onto the ocean
floor, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables. We’ve stood by
too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop,” said Erik Solheim, the
head of UN Environment, at the launch of Clean Seas campaign.
Throughout the year the campaign will be announcing ambitious
measures taken by countries and businesses to ban or tax single-use bags,
eliminate microplastics from personal care products and otherwise dramatically
reduce the use of disposable plastic.
So far more than a dozen countries in Africa — among them Cameroon,
Ethiopia, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Rwanda, Sierra
Leone, Tanzania and Uganda — have either adopted or proposed bans on polythene
Early this year Kenya announced a ban on the manufacture and import
of all plastic bags, effective later this year. Some 100 million plastic bags
are handed out every year in Kenya by supermarkets alone, which UN Environment
says, become trash that will kill birds, fish and other animals that mistake
them for food, damage agricultural land, pollute tourist sites and provide
breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever.
TURNING THE TIDE
“Are our oceans dead? I would say they are not dead yet, but they
are in deep trouble,” says Ms. Earle. “Plastic marine litter knows no
boundaries and can wash up on any shores, including those of uninhabited
islands. It is a global problem requiring a global action.”
Ms. Earle believes governments should pass laws that discourage the
use of single-use plastic such as bags, cups, bottles and the microplastics
that are used in millions of items every year. She further suggests incentives
for citizens who make choices that limit their use of plastics, such as by
using cloth or sisal bags for shopping, adding that countries can also tax
those who use plastics and use the money for cleanups.
Big corporations have joined the global effort to turn the tide of
marine litter. The technology company, Dell announced in February that it has
started using recycled plastic fished out of the sea for its product packaging.
At the individual level, choosing reusable shopping bags, cups,
straws and water bottles, and saying no to personal care products that contain
microplastics and plastic packaging can go a long way toward curbing the
plastic menace. When it comes to plastics, no action is too small to make a
difference. – Third World Network Features.
The above article is reproduced from Africa Renewal, May - July 2017.
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