UK plastic waste threatens Arctic ecosystem

Out of the 13 billion single-use plastic bottles annually bought in the UK, only 50 per cent are recycled

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 15 July 2016
Plastic causes a continuous path of destruction from surface to seafloor Credit: Anita Ritenour / Flicker
Plastic causes a continuous path of destruction from surface to seafloor Credit: Anita Ritenour / Flicker Plastic causes a continuous path of destruction from surface to seafloor Credit: Anita Ritenour / Flicker

Plastic pollution is making the Arctic ecosystem even more fragile, reveals a new analysis by experts on ocean currents from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. One of the main contributors to plastic pollution is the UK as large fraction of its plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Marine organisms are either poisoned when they mistake plastic waste for food and consume it or get tangled in floating plastic.

Evidence of ocean plastic pollution

"From seabirds caught in loops of plastic packaging to polystyrene particles blocking the digestive systems of fish, plastic causes a continuous path of destruction from surface to seafloor,” said Erik van Sebille, who led the team of researchers. Sebille is convinced that the UK is contributing to the problem as he has tracked the path of the UK’s plastic waste using ‘PlasticAdrift.org’, a tool his team has designed to track ocean currents.

After the plastics from the coastlines are being flushed into the sea, much of it that doesn’t wash back onto the beach or sink to the ocean floor drifts towards the Barents Sea, off the northern coasts of Norway, before reaching the Arctic. Heating up of the Arctic Ocean due to climate change has already put wildlife and fish under stress and this plastic pollution is making the situation worse.

In November 2015, researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute and Belgium’s Laboratory for Polar Ecology observed 31 pieces of plastic afloat on the Barents Sea and Fram Strait. Since they were viewed from a helicopter, the observers couldn’t see the smaller pieces.

Scale of the problem

The Grantham Briefing Paper produced by the team described ocean plastic pollution as “an alarming issue due to its persistence, complexity, steady growth and the pervasive impacts it has on all aspects of ecosystems”.

  • In another study conducted in 2014, it was revealed that over five trillion pieces of plastic, weighing about 269,000 tonnes, are floating in the oceans. Most of them are “micro plastics” measuring less than 5 mm. While large pieces of plastic can strangle seals and other marine animals, smaller pieces are ingested by fish before they reach humans.
  • While wrappers, containers and plastic bags are a major source of plastics, large volumes of mega- and macroplastic debris originate from ocean-based sources, including fishing equipment.
  • In the beginning of 2016, the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a report that claimed plastics production has seen twenty-fold growth since 1964, reaching 311 million tonnes in 2014. According to the report, the production is expected to double in the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050. It also said that every year, “at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute”.
  • Out of the 13 billion single-use plastic bottles annually bought in the UK, only 50 per cent are recycled. About 6.5 billion bottles are strewn on streets, beaches or tossed into rivers. A recent cleanup of British beaches led to the collection of 160 plastic bottles per mile.
  • Just 5 per cent of plastics are recycled effectively and 40 per cent end up in landfill. One-third of total plastics are thrown into the world’s oceans.
  • It is estimated that just 1 per cent of the plastic that has ever entered the ocean is floating on the surface. The rest sits below the surface and harms living organisms.
  • Interestingly, the UK is one of the biggest users of plastic in Europe and it demands 7.7 per cent of the total plastic demand for the 28 European countries.

Ocean plastic pollution garnering global attention

The members of G7 block released a statement in 2015. It clearly called for “reducing and further regulating man‐made pollution of the sea” and “ending overfishing and preserving marine biodiversity and ecosystem function through research‐based management”. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has also been at the forefront of leading an initiative on marine litter.

Solutions at hand

The Grantham Institute briefing paper, produced by Sebille, along with Charikleia Spathi and Alyssa Gilbert, recommends a holistic approach and a focus on social, behavioural, chemical and engineering solutions. It also suggests management of plastic waste at source by raising awareness among the public of the harm caused by plastic pollution.

Using alternatives where possible could be another solution, according to the researchers. However, biodegradable plastics may not be a solution, according to Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the UNEP. “They are not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down,” said McGlade. In fact, biodegradable plastics break down completely only when they are subjected to temperatures above 50°C. Such conditions are only available in an industrial composter and not in the marine environment.

While the Grantham Institute report calls for boosting recycling, it also recommends incinerating unrecyclable plastic waste for energy.

UK government’s response

Microbeads, tiny plastic balls used in personal care products, end up in oceans once they are rinsed down the drain. Small fish eat these beads by mistaking them for food. What is even more precarious is the fact that tens of millions of beads are entering the oceans because the beads are too small for the water treatment plants to filter them out. The UK government has been talking about banning it for few years.

Ahead of the Brexit referendum, UK environment minister George Eustice had stated that government fully backs a legal ban on manufacturing plastic microbeads. Stating that the UK government was working with other EU countries to push the agenda at a pan-European level, he had said that the government would go ahead and introduce a national ban even if a ban across the EU is not passed as early as 2017 to stop the particles from entering the seas.

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