If you’ve been to the Reef Teach show, you’ll know a bit about the impact of plastic and other garbage on marine life. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, but it does photodegrade, breaking down into smaller and smaller, but just as toxic particles, which are consumed by marine life mistaking it for food. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates it is killing more than a million seabirds, and over 100,000 other marine animals (including sharks, dolphins, whales and sea turtles) every year, and that there are on average 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square kilometre of the world’s oceans!
Where does it all come from? From us! When we use plastic bags that get blown away or accidentally let go of the string on a balloon. When we open the car or train door and the empty food wrapper or water bottle falls out. When we lose a net or line overboard and don’t retrieve it. It comes from our towns and cities and highways and boats.
Where does it go? It gets washed up on beaches where there are on-shore currents, creating an unsightly mess that deters tourists and decreases the nesting success of turtles and bird life. It gets caught up in ocean currents where it circles endlessly, slowly breaking down into smaller particles. It gets eaten by marine life.
Have you heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Over many years, plastics have been accumulating in the North East Pacific, trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. The location of this floating garbage patch shifts with the currents and estimates of its area vary greatly, but some suggest that is 3 times the size of Spain & Portgual, twice the size of Texas, or about the size of Queensland. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to accurately measure it.
It’s easy to point fingers and blame other people, other nations, but it is encouraging to see that many businesses, cities, states and countries are starting to take responsibility for this problem and ban the use of plastic bags.
Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002. Coles Bay in Tasmania became Australia’s first plastic-bag free town in 2003. South Australia banned plastic bags at checkouts in 2008 - that’s around 400 million less plastic bags every year. Several countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe, have either banned plastic bags outright or introduced restrictions or taxes on their use. In 2008 China banned plastic bags being given away free in shops, and introduced a ban on manufacture of plastic bags under 0.025mm in thickness. The same year, San Francisco became the first city in the US to outlaw plastic bags in supermarkets. New York, Toronto, and London are considering similar measures.
There is still much more that we can do to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans. But each of us can make a decision, every day… not to use plastic bags, not to drink bottled water, not to drop litter. To reduce, recycle, reuse!
If we haven’t convinced you yet, or you’re having trouble persuading your friends / family / work mates / room mates… have a look at this slideshow from the Pocono Record in the US.
Or join a cause like Stop Plastic Pollution: The Great Garbage Patch on Facebook. Inspire yourself and others by reading about The Plastiki Expedition – a journey from San Francisco to Sydney in a boat made out of recycled plastic bottles or Plastic Manners - one woman’s attempt to spend a year without plastic!