Walk on any beach in Australia, or any beach in the world, and you’ll see them. Plastic bottle tops, plastic bottles, plastic rings, weathered, discoloured chunks and tiny slivers of plastic. Walk along the tideline, turn over a stone or frond of seaweed, and there they’ll be. Plastics.
Irresponsible practices big and small are filling the world’s oceans with plastic waste. From the bottle you drop on the street to ghost nets from fisheries and lack of waste management infrastructure in developing nations, plastics find their way into the ocean all day, every day.
The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is a vast area of the northern Pacific Ocean containing millions of tonnes of plastics, washed into the sea from the coastlines of the world. These massive concentrations of plastics in ocean gyres are causing chemical pollution as they break down into smaller particles, infiltrating the food web and transporting potentially harmful microbes and invasive species around the world.
The Southern Ocean and Subantarctic are being hard hit by plastic pollution from fisheries and the wider world. As southern waters flow around the globe through the Ocean Conveyor Belt, plastics are picked up and moved thousands of kilometres from their source.
Fishing buoys dumped in the West Atlantic can find their way as far as Macquarie Island, where the westerly currents continuously deposit plastics and other debris. Rubbish removal is an on-going task for rangers on the island, helping to protect and maintain habitats for nesting seabirds and other wildlife.
Plastic’s impact on wildlife is immense. Large plastic rubbish like ropes and fishing nets entangle and slowly kill seals, whales and dolphins, turtles suffocate eating plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish, and untold thousands of seabirds die from eating plastic particles snatched from the sea like the small fish they resemble.
Plastic rubbish in the ocean doesn’t break down like organic matter, it crumbles into smaller and smaller fragments that resemble plankton and other small organisms at the core of the food web, and so are eaten by wildlife and enter the food chain. These micro plastics are causing seabird deaths at frightening rates, as adults feed them to their chicks and the chicks die before they can fledge. The real-life horror story of Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean illustrates the heart breaking reality of plastic pollution in an albatross colony, thousands of kilometres from the nearest land and human habitation.
Confronted with overwhelming images and reports of relentless, toxic plastic pollution, what can we do? Many of the links in this article provide info on steps we can take to reduce our plastic footprint, and there’s a short list below – as individuals and consumers, there’s many small ways we can make a big difference to our part in the world’s plastic problem.
- Don’t Litter! Put it in the bin, and if there’s no bin around, hold onto it until there is.
- Check for microbeads. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles that have become ubiquitous in cosmetic products like face scrubs, toothpaste, mineral foundations and eyeshadow. The beads are so small they aren’t captured by sewerage treatment works, and flow directly into the ocean and into the food chain. This fish we eat for lunch could have ingested microbeads from the brand of face scrub we used that morning. Yuk! There’s a wealth of resources online to help consumers identify products containing microbeads. You can download the Good Scrub Guide and the Beat the Micro Bead app to help inform your choices. Basically, if a product lists polyethylene and/or polypropylene in the ingredients, it’s got microbeads in it and should be left on the shelf.
- Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. This simple mantra has been around for years, and it’s still just as relevant. We can Refuse plastic bags and packaging, Reduce the number of plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic anything we use, Reuse bags, packing etc. wherever practicable and Recycle plastics. The large supermarkets (Coles and Woolworths) usually have recycling drop-offs for shopping bags, and some local Councils have expanded their recycling to include a broader range of plastics. Contact your local Council to find out what you can recycle in your area. Planet Ark and WWF provide some great resources and tips for reducing our plastic use and waste.
- Get a permanent water bottle. Bottled water in disposable plastic has become the flagship product for waste and pollution. Get a refillable metal, glass or ceramic water bottle and save money and plastic waste.
- Contact your fave brands and ask them to re-think their packaging. Brands are paying more attention to consumers these days, and anyone can send an email asking producers and retailers to reduce their amount of packaging and waste. Look for the ‘Contact Us’ button on websites and you can usually find either a direct email or a contact box, where you can write to them and request they re-think their plastic footprint. The same strategy can be used for local Councils and Members of Parliament.
- Take part in clean up days. Clean Up Australia Day has gone from one day a year to an ongoing national campaign to clean up rubbish around the country. There are hundreds of sites and events registered on the website, and anyone can get involved throughout the year.