Anne Murray: How we can solve the plastic problem in the oceans

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      Oct. 2 update: Karen Wristen, executive director at Living Oceans Society, contacted us to let us know that, “thanks to the generous response of our emergency appeal for funds” to complete the clean-up of northern beaches, a task that was hampered by poor weather last month, “The job is done! Five tonnes of plastic debris recovered, re-purposed, recycled or landfilled.” 

      The Living Oceans Society and a team of 20 volunteers recently completed a two-week shoreline cleanup, collecting five tonnes of marine debris from remote beaches at Cape Scott, northern Vancouver Island, and Cox Island. It appears that most of it washed in this year from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. So far 2.8 tonnes of material have been bagged, most of it plastic, and helicoptered off the beaches. However, poor weather delayed picking up all the bags of waste; the society is now urgently fundraising for further helicopter flights to complete the job. This tremendous initiative will remove a major hazard for wildlife from the marine environment. While this littering was caused by a tragic natural event, most plastic waste makes its way into the world’s oceans on a routine basis and it is causing massive environmental problems.

      A recent scientific report calculated that plastic concentrations reach 580,000 pieces per square kilometre. The authors found that almost all the world’s sea birds are affected by plastic pollution, even in the relatively unspoilt southern oceans. Over half of 135 marine bird species studied since 1962 had plastic in their gut. It is estimated that a million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year from floating plastic garbage; sea turtles, fish, and microorganisms are also affected. Trash-covered beaches around the world lower the ecological value and human livability of shorelines.

      Yet plastics were never meant to be environmentally unfriendly: the invention of the first synthetic polymer in 1869 was praised as the saviour of the elephant and the tortoise! John Hyatt, an American industrialist, was looking for a substance to replace ivory and tortoiseshell for the manufacture of billiard balls and furniture veneers. His invention of celluloid, the first thermoplastic, saved many wild animals’ lives. This chemical revolution opened the door to many new materials, including polymers that were entirely synthetic. As described by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, plastics “helped free people from the social and economic constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural resources.” The popularity of plastics has never waned: more has been produced in the last 10 years than in the whole of the last century.

      Human inventions often have unintended consequences. Plastic production surged through the early 20th century, but it was not until the 1960s that the problems of disposal and the proliferation of plastics in the oceans became generally apparent. It is an issue that still needs global attention. Fully synthetic plastics often disintegrate into very small pieces but linger in the environment for years if not centuries. Ultraviolet light and microbe activity may degrade them but it is not a fast process. The North Pacific Gyre is notorious for being full of tiny plastic micro-particles, more numerous there than plankton, but invisible on satellite photos. All our planet’s major gyres, where the dominant ocean currents meet, have problems with plastic garbage, which makes up about 90 percent of all floating trash. Many beaches in beautiful locations are spoiled by a thick rime of plastic bottles, plastic bags, fishing nets, floats, and other debris.

      According to, about 500 billion plastic bags are used annually worldwide, a number which is steadily growing. Fifty percent of plastics are used once then thrown away. 35 billion plastic water bottles a year are discarded by Americans. Production of plastics uses about eight percent of the world’s oil production, so it is a resource problem, not only a garbage issue. Landfilled plastics all have high energy values, and in Canada represent an annual energy loss equivalent to 3.4 million tonnes of coal or 14 million barrels of oil, based on 2008 figures, according to a 2012 University of Waterloo study.

      Plastic waste disposal is a solvable problem. Ninety-five percent of Canadians have access to at least some recycling programs, and people readily use them. There is no need for our plastic bags, bottles, and other waste products to litter beaches and choke rivers and oceans, or to be ground into pieces and swallowed by wildlife. We have clean drinking water in many, though not all, communities, so reusable containers can generally take the place of plastic bottles. In B.C., recycling is well organized and has been widely adopted. In fact, B.C. is a national leader in access to recycling. Communities such as Vancouver are served by MMBC which accepts the majority of plastics in blue bins, while other plastic types can be dropped off at depots; Delta goes one better and allows all numbered plastics to be placed in household bins. Beach clean-up data shows that there has been a significant reduction in the amount of waste getting on to local beaches in the last few years. Many European countries have also made recycling part of their daily life, and many other countries are setting up programs and establishing targets. Despite that, quantities of plastic still make their way into the world’s oceans. So what more can we do as individuals?

      The public has an active voice through social media, which can encourage global change. Locally, better recycling programs should be built into new apartment blocks and condominiums, as these households find it more complicated to recycle regularly than single-family homeowners who just have to put bins out at the curb. Single-use water bottles should be discouraged at events, by providing other means of accessing water, such as water fountains designed to facilitate using refillable bottles. Extending a helping hand to other nations is important. Marine shipping must be urged to stop throwing garbage overboard. The tourism industry could do more to fund and facilitate beach clean-ups and develop recycling programs in locations around the world. I remember seeing a beautiful Caribbean island beach strewn with washed-ashore plastic garbage; it was adjacent to the site of a new hotel construction. A clear opportunity for beneficial partnerships. Traditional ideas are sometimes better than new ones: in Asia, takeaway food was once served in little packets made of folded banana leaves. The arrival of plastic bags largely ended that practice, and the resulting litter degraded many scenic areas. Paying a small extra eco-levy on tours to countries with emerging economies could help them reach their recycling targets.

      Clean-ups benefit everyone and help ensure a healthy future for marine wildlife. And when disaster strikes and a tsunami brings garbage halfway across the world, we can all donate a little to help get the job done; check out the Living Oceans website: