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Ocean plastic: Why do we need to keep talking about it?

Image credit: Greenpeace
Image credit: Greenpeace

The plastic problem. You may think you’ve heard all about it: don’t litter, don’t be wasteful. But when we delve into the topic further with Hannah Rudd’s Ted-talk style presentation, we find that the problem goes far deeper than this. Are you doing enough for your ocean?

On Thursday 7thMarch, Environmental management (MSc) student Hannah Rudd gave a moving Ted-talk style presentation to a group of students at the University of York, as part of a trio of talks for the ‘’Life to Water’ project run by the Derwent Global Community this week. Her talk was all about how our consumption of single-use plastic is detrimentally impacting our planet, most of all, the oceans and wildlife within them. 

Yes, it’s true that the media seems to be in adoration of this topic, and you probably know quite a lot already. We all love a cosy evening in watching one of David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ episodes. But Hannah’s talk emphasised some more less publicised, yet still crucial facts, such as that most cigarette butts contain plastic based filters, or that a plastic bag has reached even the deepest point on Earth, the Marianas Trench.

When we think of plastic pollution we often consider the discarded plastic fork we saw on the beach, or the empty crisp packet you see drifting down the pavement. In actual fact the major causes of plastic pollution lie in microplastics and microfibres, the ones we can’t necessarily see. Synthetic microfibers, made of plastic elements, are found in 60% of all clothing, entering water systems during a wash. As with other plastics, they will not biodegrade but will photodegrade (decompose by light) and so will remain within dark water systems and eventually seas for many many years, causing harm to wildlife there. Plastics are often mistaken for prey, or consumed involuntarily by albatross chicks, filter feeding mussels and fish to name just a few. For some wildlife, this can be lethal, making chicks too heavy to fly the nest, or releasing toxic chemicals like PCB which can affect fertility systems in large animals like the killer whale.

A more surprising effect is that found by a study into invasive species on plastic. Plastic can act as a vector which transports harmful pathogens through the ocean, moved through the currents to cause disease organisms like coral, which are already under threat due to other human actions. On top of this, we are seeing the destruction of habitats, including the intertidal zone which hosts a fragile ecosystem, and the entanglement of large beautiful mammals in fishing lines, the second largest cause of hammerhead shark decline. 

“Single-use plastics are the enemy, not plastic.” Hannah advocates for the use of recycled plastics and not for the abolishment of the material itself, with over 300 million tonnes of plastic needing manufacture per year, simply because so much is thrown away. As we can probably all agree with her, this is a “sad reality”; something which needs drastic change. So what can we ourselves do? Luckily, the attention given to this topic has highlighted this problem to many, with more and more organisations coming together. Peru restricts the use of single use plastic, and in Kenya plastic bags are banned. 

But as individuals we can feel quite helpless. Our influence lies majorly in our purchasing power. There are endless possibilities of alternative products we can buy: guppy bags for laundry which collects microfibers, soap bars to replace tubs, jars and long term water bottles.

The other speakers, Devan Voralia, who expressed how human intervention is affecting the birds on University campus, and Addi from Leeds University who inspired us with her love for water itself, also mentioned some simple solutions such as picking up rubbish you find and taking reused bags for your weekly shop. 

For further information on these topics, there are many videos on plastic in the ocean, or you can read the book detailing the University of York campus geese over time, plus many more other sources. If you feel that its time the ocean was properly cared for, you can browse through some environmentally friendly alternatives to the normal products you buy online or in specialist stores in York. Why not pick up your first bamboo toothbrush today? (And remember to take a bag with you!)