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Plastic ocean left for our children

Plastic ocean left for our children

geplaas op Woen, 19 Feb 2020

Litter and bad waste manage­ment practices are some of the major contributors to water pollution and threaten all biodiversity from inland sources to the oceans, as well as farming activities.

Plastic ocean left for our children

 Litter and bad waste manage­ment practices are some of the major contributors to water pollution and threaten all biodiversity from inland sources to the oceans, as well as farming activities. Duart Hugo writes that although 94% of people see littering as an environmental problem, they keep on littering.

Looking around us today it is ob­vious that there is a “don’t care” attitude (apathy) by us as hu­mans and a lack of ser­vice delivery by government to manage waste according to the Waste Management Act (Act No. 59 of 2008). Human beings are the only creatures on earth who litter, and we are regarded as the most intelligent creatures on earth?

Poor wastewater treatment and management are also major threats to not only biodiversity but also to farming and water quality. These challenges can be addressed in a subsequent article.

Why Do People Litter?

Littering is the result of individual behaviour such as choosing to litter, being careless in the hand­ling of waste, or a “don’t care” attitude by communities. Once litter has been strewn, wherever, it attracts more litter and gar­bage such as household was­te. It is also a fact that the dirtier an area is, the greater the like­lihood of an increase in crime. A clean, caring farming com­munity can discourage littering and improve environmental appearance and quality of life.

When we litter next to roads and/or manage waste incor­rectly on our farms and in urban areas, it can pollute the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. When rain falls, the water drains into storm water drainage systems and into waterways and rivers, en­ding up in the oceans and pol­luting them. Currents move the pollutants and form a type of “whirlpool” where the pollutants accumulate, forming gyres (garbage/waste patches). 

What are gyres (garbage patches)?

A gyre is a place where ocean currents meet and form a whirlpool type system - this forms a gathering spot for ocean de­bris. Millions of tiny and large pieces of different waste types accumulate here due to the currents and they remain trap­ped, disintegrating over time into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming “dust”.

­This dust will never go away but will instead stay in the ocean, accumulating toxins and working its way into the food chain as more animals ingest these almost invisible and dangerous particles of plastic waste.

The North Pacific Gyre has an estimated size ranging from 700,000 square kilometres to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or, in some media reports, up to “twice the size of the continental United States”.

Oceans cover more than 70 per­cent of our planet and are among the earth’s most valua­ble natural resources. Oceans control the weather, clean the air, help feed the world, and provide a living for millions. Oceans also accommodate the largest amount of bio­diversity on earth, from micro­scopic algae to the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet.

All water from land ends up in the oceans, eventually dumping contaminants such as dange­rous carbon emissions, choking plastic waste and toxic oil ef­fluents into the ocean. We as humans are overloading the oceans with pollutants and especially plastic, the ever-present material that comes in so many forms, which is threa­tening everything that depends on these waters. Cigarette butts, plastic bags, fishing gear, and food and beverage containers are the most common forms of plastic pollution found in the oceans.

Plastic Waste

The majority of the garbage entering the ocean each year consists of plastic.

Disposed plastic products such as single-use shopping bags (very convenient, although paid for), water bottles, drinking straws, and yogurt containers, quickly fill up landfills and farm rubbish dumps and often block drains, street gutters and storm water drainage systems.

Eight million metric tons of the plastic items we toss (instead of recycle), won’t biodegrade - instead, they can persevere in the environment for a millen­nium, polluting our beaches, entangling and being consu­med by marine life, including seabirds. The plastic creates health problems such as redu­cing their nutrients and blocking their stomachs and intestines. Animals cannot break down plastic in their digestive system and will usually die from the obstruction. Entangled pieces of plastic around animals’ bodies or heads can cause injury or death.

Some facts about how much plastic is in the oceans:

l      At least 8 million tons of plas­tic enter the oceans each year. That’s equivalent to em­ptying a garbage truck of plas­tic into an ocean every minute!

l      There are more micro plastic particles in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.

l      322 million tons of plastic were produced in 2015 - the same weight as 900 Empire State Buildings (which con­sists of granite and steel).

l      60-90% of marine litter is plastic-based.

l      More than 50 percent of sea turtles have consumed plas­tic.

l      The amount of plastic in the world’s oceans could in­crease tenfold in the next decade.

l      By 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight).

l      Plastic is found in the ocean as far as 11km deep, mea­ning synthetic fibres have contaminated even the most remote places on Earth.

l      There is more plastic than natural prey at the sea surface of the Great Pacific Gyre, which means that or­ganisms feeding in this area are likely to have plastic as a major component of their diets. For instance, sea turtles by-caught in fisheries ope­rating within and around the patch can have up to 74% (dry weight) of their diets composed of ocean plastics.

l      As reliable a source as the National Ocean and Athmospheric Administration estimated it would take 67 ships an entire year to scoop up less than 1% of the gar­bage in the North Pacific.

The ever-present plastic materials that come in so many forms are threatening everything that depends on these waters.

Written by Duart Hugo who is a retired Deputy Director, Free State DESTEA, Environmental Empowerment Service

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