I used to think it would be difficult to produce so huge an amount of litter that it would actually screw up our vast oceans. Clearly, when we see a river jammed with pollution, emitting a foul smell, and even on fire (as happened near Cleveland,) we eventually take action. But the ocean is so vast, how can we possibly create that much pollution?
Well, we’re doing it. And because plastics simply don’t break down very quickly, they become a hazard to marine life … which also happens to be a major source for our food. It’s one of those “mega-problems” that I’m not sure I can solve single-handedly. However, afterwards, I’ll suggest steps we can take.
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Takeaway food and drink litter dominates ocean plastic, study shows
Just 10 plastic products make up 75% of all items and
scientists say the pollution must be stopped at source
Damian Carrington Environment editor
10 Jun 2021
Plastic items from takeaway food and drink dominate the litter in the world’s oceans, according to the most comprehensive study to date.
Single-use bags, plastic bottles, food containers and food wrappers are the four most widespread items polluting the seas, making up almost half of the human-made waste, the researchers found. Just 10 plastic products, also including plastic lids and fishing gear, accounted for three-quarters of the litter, due to their widespread use and extremely slow degradation.
The scientists said identifying the key sources of ocean plastic made it clear where action was needed to stop the stream of litter at its source. They called for bans on some common throwaway items and for producers to be made to take more responsibility.
Action on plastic straws and cotton buds in Europe was welcome, the researchers said, but risked being a distraction from tackling far more common types of litter. Their results were based on carefully combining 12m data points from 36 databases across the planet. Carmen Morales-Caselles, at the University of Cádiz, Spain, who led the new research, said …
“We were not surprised about plastic being
80% of the litter, but the high proportion of
takeaway items did surprise us, which will
not just be McDonald’s litter, but water bottles,
beverage bottles like Coca-Cola, and cans.
“This information will make it easier for
policymakers to actually take action to try
to turn off the tap of marine litter flowng
into the ocean, rather than just clean it up.”
Straws and stirrers made up 2.3% of the litter and cotton buds and lolly sticks were 0.16%. Morales-Caselles said …
“It’s good that there is action against
plastic cotton buds, but if we don’t
add to this action the top litter items,
then we are not dealing with the core of
the problem – we’re getting distracted.”
Prof Richard Thompson, of the University of Plymouth in the UK, who was not part of the research team, said:
“Having [this data] recorded in a proper
scientific way is incredibly useful. There
can be a reluctance to take action on
something that seems very obvious be-
cause there isn’t a published study on it.”
The research, published in the journal Nature Sustainability and funded by the BBVA Foundation and Spanish science ministry, concluded: “In terms of litter origins, take-out consumer items – mainly plastic bags and wrappers, food containers and cutlery, plastic and glass bottles, and cans – made up the largest share.”
The analysis included items bigger than 3cm and identifiable, excluding fragments and microplastics. It distinguished between take-out plastic items and toiletry and household product containers.
The highest concentration of litter was found on shorelines and sea floors near coasts. The scientists said wind and waves repeatedly sweep litter to the coasts, where it accumulates on the nearby seafloor. Fishing material, such as ropes and nets, were significant only in the open oceans, where they made up about half the total litter.
A second study in the same journal examined the litter entering the ocean from 42 rivers in Europe, and was one of the datasets Morales and colleagues used. It found Turkey, Italy and the UK were the top three contributors to floating marine litter. Daniel González-Fernández of the University of Cádiz, who led the second study, said …
“Mitigation measures cannot mean cleaning
up at the river mouth. You have to stop the
litter at the source so the plastic doesn’t even
enter the environment in the first place.”
In May, Greenpeace revealed that UK plastic waste sent to Turkey for recycling had been burned or dumped and left to pollute the ocean. US and UK citizens produce more plastic waste per person than any other major countries, according to other recent research.
The researchers recommended bans on avoidable take-out plastic items, such as single-use bags, as the best option. For products deemed essential, they said the producers should be made to take more responsibility for the collection and safe disposal of products and they also backed deposit return schemes. Nina Schrank, plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said …
“This comprehensive study concludes
that the best way to confront plastic
pollution is for governments to severely
restrict single-use plastic packaging.
This seems undeniable. We will never
recycle the quantity of waste plastic
we’re currently producing.”
Thompson said …
“What’s going on in the sea is a symptom
of the problem – the origin of the problem
and the solution are back on land and
that’s where we’ve got to take action.”
• • • • • • • •
Because of the pandemic, more restaurants than ever are delivering their food in takeout form, so the problem is growing even more. Adding some comments from D …
“The U.S. and the UK have the highest use of plastics. We know why they’re used, as they protect products during shipping. We also know plastic takes a very long time to decompose … as in thousands of years! And we know that recycling helps.
“There is no need to ever buy bottled water. If one buys sodas in cans or bottles they can be recycled. Most recycled plastic bottles end up as carpet. But then, what happens to that carpet when its use is finished? Again, some carpet is recycled, but much ends up in landfills.
“Why does so much end up in the ocean? Carelessness on the part of individuals and on the part of municipalities. When people are careless, they’re not thinking about others … or the Earth. Be thoughtful with your waste.
“And more importantly, be thoughtful in what you purchase, and how it is packaged.”
My wife and I regularly buy smoothies. They come in Styrofoam cups, with plastic straws. We’ve asked if they could provide the smoothie with a paper product, as Starbucks does, or with a refillable container. The smoothie brand we use refuses to change, so our option is to simply stop buying from them and seek an alternative source. Sadly, it would take a lot of customers doing this – all complaining to their corporate HQ – before they’d change … if even then.
As an option, you can also simply refuse to accept their plastic straws and utensils, and use your own when you get home. In China, I recall how many people carried their own chopsticks. If we’re eating out with carryout foods, perhaps we could bring along our own cutlery, too. We could simply keep some in our glove compartment for those situations.
In terms of single-use plastic bags … some grocers use paper bags, some allow you to bring your own bags, and some will collect previously used plastic bags, which are then sent for recycling – such as to make Trex products. If your grocer does none of those things, then as with smoothies, we can try to find another grocer. For grocers, we have many options.
While I don’t see myself as a giant polluter, when I imagine thousands or millions like me, each using those Styrofoam cups, I can begin to get a picture of my projected impact. Earth is our home; why are we trashing it?