Marine life is at risk of suffering irreparable damage from million tons of plastic waste that end up in the sea every year. ”It is a planetary crisis. ANDwe are destroying the ocean ecosystem”, he told the BBC Lisa Svensson, Director of Oceans at the UN Environment Program.
Given the warning, the BBC produced five charts to explain how plastic has become a threat to the environment and show the extent of the damage it can cause when disposed of in the ocean.
Why is plastic problematic?
Plastic as we know it has been around for about 70 years. And since then, the use of this material has transformed many areas, from clothing manufacturing to cooking, engineering, design and even retail.
One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is the fact that they are designed to last for many, many years. Practically all the plastic that has been produced continues to exist, even if it is not in its original format.
In an article published in July in the academic journal Science Advances, researcher Roland Geyer, from the University of California at Santa Barbara, The amount of plastic that is already produced in the world is estimated at 8.3 billion tons.
Of this total, around 6.3 billion tons are classified as waste, and 79% would be in landfills or in nature. That is, little material is recycled or reused.
The vast amount of plastic waste is a result of the modern lifestyle, where plastic is used as a raw material for various disposable or “single use” items, such as drink bottles, diapers, cotton swabs and cutlery.
4 billion plastic bottles
Beverage bottles are one of the most common types of plastic waste.
It is estimated that they were sold 480 billion bottles worldwide by 2016that is, 1 million bottles per minute.
Only Coca-Cola was responsible for producing 110 billion plastic bottles.
Some countries have discussed ways to reduce material consumption. The UK, for example, is discussing offering free drinking water in big cities and setting up plastic take-back units.
How much plastic goes into the sea?
It is estimated that 10 million tons of plastic end up in the sea every year.
In 2010, researchers at the Center for Ecological Analysis of the University of Georgia, in the United States, counted 8 million tons and they estimated 9.1 million tons for 2015.
The same study, published in the academic journal Science in 2015, looked at 192 coastal countries that contribute to the release of plastic waste into the oceans. And it found that 13 of the top 20 responsible for marine pollution are Asian nations.
While China is at the top of the list, the United States appears at position 20.
Brazil occupies, in turn, the 16th position in the ranking, which takes into account the size of the population living in coastal areas, the total amount of waste generated and the total amount of discarded plastic.
Plastic debris usually accumulates in areas of the ocean where the winds cause rotating circular currents, capable of absorbing any floating debris. There are five such currents in the world, but one of the most famous is the North Pacific.
Debris from the coast of the United States takes an average of six years to reach the center of this current. Japan can take up to a year.
All five currents typically have a higher concentration of plastic debris than other parts of the ocean. They also promote a phenomenon known as “plastic soup,” which causes small pieces of the material to become suspended below the surface of the water.
In addition, the decomposition of most plastic waste can take hundreds of years.
However, there are initiatives to clean up the North Pacific Current.
Why is it harmful to marine life?
For seabirds and larger animals – such as turtles, dolphins and seals – the danger can be in the plastic bags, in which they end up getting stuck. These animals also often mistake plastic for food.
Turtles cannot distinguish, for example, a bag from a jellyfish. Once ingested, plastic bags can cause an internal obstruction and lead to death.
Larger pieces of plastic also damage the digestive system of birds and whales, and are potentially fatal.
Over time, plastic debris breaks down into small pieces. The process, which is slow, it also worries scientists.
Research from the University of Plymouth in England showed that plastic debris was found in a third of fish caught in the UK, including cod.
As well as causing malnutrition and starvation for the fish, the researchers say that by consuming shellfish, humans may be eating plastic fragments by default. And the effects of this are still unknown.
In 2016, the European Food Safety Authority warned of the growing risk to human health, given the possibility that plastic microparticles were present in the tissues of marketed fish.