We have depended on plastic for many years, and now we’re drowning in it. The world produces 10 tons of the stuff a second, or just under 300 million tonnes a year – equivalent to the weight of the planet’s entire adult population. Experts estimate that between 5 and 14 million tons of this finds its way into our oceans each year, and that 80% of the waste in the ocean is plastic. Some of it washes up on beaches, while about 5 trillion pieces float in surface waters, mostly in the form of tiny, easy-to-swallow fragments that end up in the guts of whales, albatrosses, sea turtles, plankton, fish and all shellfish such as prawns, crabs, oysters and mussels. They also affect the health of plants such as seaweed and sink into the deep sea and upon the amphipods that live there.
Why plastic is bad for us and our planet
Plastic pollution kills around 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. In Indonesia last year, 115 plastic cups, 4 bottles and 2 flip-flops were found inside a dead whale (read more here), and dramatic stories such as this abound around the world. But recent research suggests the situation is more critical than ever. In a worrying study in the Mariana Trench, the lowest point in any ocean, Newcastle University marine biologist Alan Jamieson found that every tiny animal tested had plastic pollution hiding in its gut (read more here).
Plastic in the ocean is ingested by marine animals, puts them in danger of entanglement, destroys marine habitats, and threatens biodiversity by enabling invasive species. But it’s not just marine mammals, seabed crustaceans and the environment that are affected, of course – humans are at the greatest risk of all.
How plastic pollutes
How so? The sun and waves break down floating ocean plastics over time into tiny particles called microplastics. These are then joined by other microplastics that have found their way into the sea through human washing cycles, including fabric fibres from the clothes we choose to wear that are made of synthetic materials rather than 100% natural materials, and beads found in cosmetics and (in the countries that have yet to ban them) in toiletries such as soaps and shampoos. All of these microplastics attract dangerous toxins from industrial and agricultural sources that until recently the ocean has diluted for us. They combine to become little toxic pills that are ingested by marine animals and passed up the food chain all the way to us. No wonder many people now pause for thought before they tuck into a plate of fish or shellfish on their travels.
‘This situation is potentially catastrophic,’ says Peter Jones, founder of charity Just One Ocean. Over the last ten years, says Jones, we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century. Plastic now accounts for around 10% of the total waste we generate, and virtually every piece of plastic that has been made still exists somewhere on the planet. As Sir David Attenborough says, ‘Plastic is so permanent and so indestructible, that when you cast it into the ocean it does not go away’.
What we as travellers can do about it
We surely don’t need many more scientific studies to stop our own use of all our single use plastics, from plastic bags and plastic straws to plastic bottles of water and disposable nappies. To help clean up our existing oceans, and lobby governments to limit the pollution being dumped into the ocean and ensure that marine habitats are sustainably managed.
As travellers we can also use the power of our wallets to support places to stay that are aggressively actioning the removal of single use plastic (take a look here for ideas). To ask beforehand and choose to stay only in hotels who have already banned single use plastics, and to favour hotel groups such as Soneva that are carbon neutral and have banned all disposable plastics.
When we are away, we can also boldly speak up and act. When we see disposable plastic being used on our flight, we can tell the staff onboard and follow up by writing to the airline. When we see them being used at hotels, we can speak to the manager and let them know how we feel. When we are in a shop, where most things are over packaged, we can speak to the manager and leave as much of the plastic packaging behind as possible.
It all starts with as many people as possible taking a single step. For some quick and easy starting points, check out Lucy Siegle’s Top tips for travellers who care about plastics.