The chronic detrimental effects of plastic pollution in the ocean and how dangerous it is to both the marine ecosystem and human beings. What can we do?
Plastic use in the last 50 years has led to a build-up of synthetic plastic in the ocean. Smaller particles, up to 5mm in size, are considered microplastics: these can be consumed by marine life, having a detrimental effect on the aquatic ecosystem.
These microplastics form when larger plastic objects break down. Shopping bags, plastic bottles, and food containers are the most common types of plastic pollution in the ocean, making up almost half of all waste. They are widely used and have an extremely slow degradation, capable of lasting hundreds of years. The microplastics are ultimately transferred all along the food chain: from coral and plankton to invertebrates, fish and whales.
Plastic pollution facts
Scientific techniques for detecting microplastics have improved substantially in recent years and ocean plastic pollution continues to increase. This means that in studies published 10 years ago, an average of 15% of fish contained plastic. According to more recent studies however, of 555 fish species studied around the world, 386 species are known to have ingested plastic debris: over two-thirds of the total.
One study in the Tropical Eastern Pacific and Galápagos Sea studied 240 marine organisms that are regularly consumed by humans, including fish, cephalopod molluscs and crustaceans. Microplastic fragments were detected in 166 specimens, (69%).
Recent studies also estimate that there are 24.4 trillion particles of microplastics in our oceans: the equivalent of roughly 30 billion plastic water bottles.
Consequences to human health
Studies analysing the potential effects on the human body are ongoing, but there is evidence that that microplastics (and even smaller nanoplastics) can move from the stomach of a fish to its muscle tissue, which is how humans typically end up ingesting them.
We do know that plastics present a risk to both marine animals and humans because they may contain the toxic chemicals that are used in their manufacturing process. They also soak up harmful chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other serious human health problems.
Another trend is that of fish consumption: it has doubled since the 1960s to nearly 20kg per person. In the meantime, seafood production is annually increasing at a rate of 3.2%, which is twice the rate of world population growth. Demand for seafood is increasing, even as its future sustainability is in doubt.
How can we fight this?
There are more than 20,000 marine species and only 2% have been tested for plastic consumption. We already know that ocean pollution is ending up on our plates, so we must do more.
Government regulations can help: in many countries worldwide, politicians are already campaigning for laws requiring all new washing machines to be fitted with plastic microfibre filters. Consumers have a huge role to play: the more the public is conscious about the chronic effects of microplastic pollution, the more they will choose sustainable brands.
Around 12% of the global population relies on fisheries for their livelihood. At the Sea2see Foundation we have created a sustainable solution for plastic recycling while benefitting coastal communities at the same time. Our marine waste collection programme in West Africa helps local communities earn money by collecting the marine plastic we recycle to use in our glasses and watches.
Our foundation also collaborates closely with Free the Slaves to support their local programme that helps former child slaves from the fishing industry to transition to normal life through education.