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  • Rushmi Rosairo

Triple Bottom Tuesday >>> Our Oceans are Drowning in Plastic

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Picture Credit: Plastic Collectors website

More than 70% of earth’s surface is covered by the vast ocean and its seas. 94% of earth’s inhabitants live within the ocean, incredible, isn’t it? Sadly, the ocean is in deep water, pun intended.

Ocean pollution has become a serious complication. Millions of tons of plastic end up in the ocean per year, there are at least four dozen shipwrecks per year, most of them being cargo ships. Most plastics float in the sea, but with time they accumulate as microplastics at the seabed. Experts believe that there is a chance that there might be more plastic than living aquatic animals or plants by 2050.

Between 2011 and 2020, approximately 876 vessels were lost at sea, 348 of which were cargo ships. A cargo vessel (the Felicity Ace) carrying luxury cars from Germany to the U.S has sunk in the mid-Atlantic just last week. It had been carrying 4000 luxury vehicles. The environmental impact will no doubt be terrible.

In May 2021, a 186m-long vessel called the “X-Press Pearl” carrying 1486 containers, including nitic acid and several other chemicals and cosmetics went down just off the coast of Sri Lanka. This calamity had a huge impact on Sri Lanka’s sensitive coastal environment. Around 48 carcasses of cetaceans had washed ashore, four out of five of the species of sea turtles in Sri Lanka had been seen washed ashore with ghastly burn marks most likely caused by contamination and toxic burning.

- X Press Pearl wreckage in Sri Lanka Picture Source: BBC

Although, experts state that the main factor of marine pollution is the pervasiveness of single-use plastics. “We find it in the deepest ocean trenches, at the sea surface and in the Arctic Sea ice,” said biologist Melanie Bergmann who co-authored the review by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, commissioned by environmental campaign group WWF.

Estimating almost 86 million to 150 million metric tonnes of plastic waste currently been accumulated in the ocean, WWF has described the situation as a “planetary crisis”.

The Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s largest plastic accumulation hot spots. It presents pollution levels rivaling the “great marine garbage patch” of the Pacific Ocean. Studies have reveled that the Mediterranean Sea contains 84,800 microplastics per cubic km in its surface waters, 300 microplastics per cubic km of marine sediment, and 59 microplastics per kg of beach sand, no wonder its almost as bad as the “great marine garbage patch”.

The Arctic has already exceeded the ecologically maximum amount of microplastic concentration it can hold. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans are a mess, with floating plastic in such quantities that it looks like floating islands.

Studies show that the Asia-Pacific region, harboring around half of the world’s coral reefs, is highly contaminated with plastic. Clinging to the coral (especially branching coral) and ultimately making them sick or killing them. So, it’s appropriate to say that it’s harming important ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves.

According to senior author Drew Harvell at Cornell University, the plastic basically tears open the skin of corals. This leads to infections. Plastic can also block sunlight from reaching corals. Coral reefs are already susceptible to bleaching due to the unusually warm water brought on by either seasonal shifts in water temperature or global warming. The bleached coral is stressed and therefore the plastic will make the situation much worse.

Corals aren’t the only thing that is affected. Noting that four out of twenty brands of canned Sardines and Sprats, when tested, contained microplastics. Reports show that plastic contents have been found in many shellfish such as Blue Mussels and Oysters, and it ultimately affects humans as well. As plastics break down into ever-smaller pieces, it also enters the marine food chain. This leads to it being ingested by tiny Plankton to even the biggest marine animals. According to WWF, at least 2,144 species suffer from plastic pollution in their habitat, eventually ending up ingesting them. 90% of marine birds and 52% of turtles are among the 2,144.

Picture Source: The Times website

Some parts of the world face a risk of “ecosystem collapse” which affects the entire marine food web. Given the pervasiveness of plastic pollution, it is likely that nearly every species has encountered plastic by now. The effects of plastic pollution are already emerging within most species’ groups, while the efficiency of effectiveness of several of the world’s most important marine ecosystems are under significant risk.

Research warns that plastic production is expected to more than double by 2040, resulting in plastic debris in the ocean quadrupling by 2050. Analysts for WWF found that an ocean area more than two and a half times the area of Greenland could exceed the threshold of ecologically dangerous microplastic concentrations by 2100. When considering the growth of plastic pollution, many areas are more likely to suffer from considerable ecological risks.

This will thwart the current efforts taken to protecting and increasing biodiversity.

Getting the plastic out of the water is almost impossible. Considering this, it would be wise for policymakers to focus on preventing any more of it entering the oceans. While consumers worldwide can help reduce ocean pollution by changing their behavior, the governments must step up and face the problem directly. As Heike Vesper of WWF said, “it’s a global problem and it needs global solutions”.

If we are not careful, we might be letting our children inherit only a broken shell of what the ocean once was. We are risking an ocean predominantly consisting of plastic, and some experts say 90% of our coral reefs may be dead by 2050. With 94% of the plant’s inhabitants dwelling in the oceans, at this rate, ocean pollution can cause catastrophic marine extinction and collapsing of important ecosystems, leaving the oceans overheated, acidified and lacking oxygen. Is it worth continuing on the current path?

March 8th 2022 | 10:30 PM

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