What impact is pollution having on marine life?

An investigation by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency has linked marine waste to the deaths of a million seabirds and 100 000 marine mammals.

Lost at Sea: The Urgent Need to Tackle Marine Litter says “plastic waste has polluted the oceans to such an extent that no area remains uncontaminated”.

Up to 12-million tonnes of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year. A big source of this is the 500-billion plastic bags that are used worldwide every year. These are used for an average of 12 minutes before being discarded, the report’s authors found.

This waste finds its way into every part of the world’s oceans. The investigative agency found traces in deep sea sediments, and frozen in Arctic sea ice. Because the waste is not biodegradable, it is locked into the food cycle forever.

Of the marine waste floating around the oceans, 80% comes from sources on land with 80% of this made up of plastics. More than 90% of cases of animals being negatively affected were linked to plastic waste, according to the report.

The report broadly categorised the different kinds of waste found in beach cleanups into packaging-related litter, fishing and shipping-related litter, sewage-related litter and microplastics from industry. These were then traced from their sources to ocean animals.

With plastic being the most turned-to resource in the past century, the investigative agency found that production was escalating constantly. “There is a critical need for urgent action to prevent plastic waste.”

The report found that microplastics – fragments of less than 5mm in size – were the most dangerous because of their small size and the lack of attention given to their release.

They are found in industrial applications and in households, where they come off clothes in the wash and are present in cleaning products. Tests in the UK found that 100 000 microbeads were washed down the drain in one application of some brands of facial scrub.

This single application in one country added 80 tonnes of microplastics to the oceans each year, the investigations agency found. Their small size means they are not trapped in sewerage plants and there are now more than five-trillion plastic particles floating in the world’s oceans.

The most visible plastics, such as bags and tampons, provide the greatest threats to ingestion and entrapment by animals living at sea, the report said.

A study in Brazil cited in the report found plastic in 100% of the turtles examined. By looking at dead turtles, its authors concluded that plastic and waste ingestion was responsible for 13% of all deaths in the species.

A previous study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found 693 species that had ingested or been entangled in marine litter. The union, which is responsible for classifying species as endangered or not, said 17% of these species were listed as threatened or near threatened.

Local bag ban
South Africa is one of only a few countries in the world that has banned single-use plastic bags. Instead, a levy on plastic bags was introduced in 2003 to ensure that better quality bags were sold and then recycled.

That levy now stands at 6c a bag. Answering parliamentary questions last year, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene said R1.1-billion had been raised since 2003 through this levy. But it was not ring fenced and therefore did not necessarily go back into environmental programmes, he said.

Aside from plastic bags, most of South Africa’s plastic is thrown away or goes to waste dumps. According to the environment department, a billion tonnes of plastic went straight to dumps last year. Only 17% of plastic waste is recycled compared with 25% of glass and 59% of paper.

This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum. 

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Author: Sipho Kings is the person the Mail & Guardian sends to places when people’s environment is collapsing.

Image: A school of barracuda swims in Celebes. REUTERS/David Loh.