Many of our waste products end up in the sea and then can move through the ocean, endangering marine life through entanglement, ingestion and intoxication. The Sea Change, a project funded from the EU’s Horizon 2020 Framework Program for Research and Innovation (EU H2020), cited the top five sources of marine pollution and the implications they create for marine life.
The EU H2020 Sea Change project aims to establish a fundamental “Sea Change” in the way European citizens view their relationship with the sea, by empowering them to take direct and sustainable action towards a healthy ocean, healthy communities and ultimately a healthy planet.
Sources of marine pollution
- Common items of marine litter in the sea include cigarette butts, crisp/sweet packets, cotton bud sticks, bags and bottles.
- Man-made items of debris are found in marine habitats throughout the world, from the poles to the equator, from shorelines and estuaries to remote areas of the high seas, and from the sea surface to the ocean floor.
- About 80% of marine litter comes from land-based sources (eg. through drains, sewage outfalls, industrial outfalls, direct littering) while 20% comes from marine-based activities such as illegal dumping and shipping for transport, tourism and fishing.
- Plastics are estimated to represent between 60 and 80% of the total marine debris. Manufactured in abundance since the mid-20th century, most of the plastics that have been produced are still present in the environment.
- The cumulative amount of plastic produced since the mid-20th century is of the order of 5 billion tons, enough to wrap the Earth in a layer of plastic wrap. The amount projected by 2050, on current trends, is about 40 billion tons, which is enough to wrap 6 layers of plastic wrap around the planet.
Dangers to marine environment
- Observed effects in wildlife attributed to microcontaminant exposure (a diverse class of chemicals including pharmaceuticals, pesticides and industrial chemicals) include reproductive abnormalities and behavioural effects.
- All sea turtle species, 45% of all species of marine mammals, and 21% of all species of sea birds have been affected by ingestion of or entanglement in marine debris, with plastic items being the most frequently documented.
- Plastics can absorb toxins from surrounding seawater, such as pesticides and those in the class of chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). They can also release harmful constituents such as Bisphenol A (known to mimic the hormone estrogen), as they degrade.
- Because of their small size, microplastics (plastic fragments < 5mm) can be ingested by a wide range of organisms. This can cause physical damage from abrasions, blockages or accumulation of toxins in organisms.
A recent study published in the journal Science revealed that the vast amount of plastic that is currently on the oceans, is directly linked to outbreaks of disease in the coral reefs. The study team estimated that approximately 11.1 billion plastic items are entangled on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific region; a number that is expected to increase as well, to 40% until 2025. Plastic waste management is critical for reducing diseases that threaten ecosystem health and human livelihoods.
Human health can also be significantly influenced by marine litter in the form of physical damage, e.g. injury from debris such as broken glass or indirectly by chemicals, toxins or bacteria in the water. In addition, plastic particles have been found in a wide variety of species that we eat, such as bivalves (e.g. mussels), crustaceans (e.g. crabs) and fish.
The risk of chemicals adhered to plastics transferring through the food web from marine organisms to humans has not yet been fully assessed and represents an important knowledge gap.
Sea Change suggests that the best way we can all help is to minimize new litter entering the marine environment:
Reduce: Choose products with less packaging. Better still, choose shops where you can refill your own container.
Reuse: Use reusable coffee mugs, water bottles and shopping bags.
Recycle: Separate items that can be recycled (i.e. plastic, paper, cardboard).
Ship-borne waste has been a main area of concern for the industry. Recently, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, world’s largest cruise company, revealed plans to eliminate single-use plastics from its fleet operations on its three lines, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Royal Carribean International.
In addition, starting 2018, the Netherlands-based MF Shipping Group informed that it bought 750 design water bottles from the Plastic Bank, an organisation committed to stop ocean plastic. By enabling the exchange of plastic for money, items or Blockchain secured digital tokens, the Plastic Bank empowers recycling ecosystems around the world and stops the flow of plastic into the oceans, while helping people living in poverty build better futures.
In January, the European Commission released a new proposal for a revised law to govern the delivery of waste from ships in ports and fishing harbours. The new proposal aims to achieve a higher level of protection of the marine environment and introduces measures to prevent marine litter. It also wants to ensure that there is the necessary port reception facilities available, to promote a waste notification from ships and transparency of the waste delivery fee charging structures.