Swimming in Plastic

Photo by Danae Dodge










Beautiful isn’t it? I took this photo on my summer holidays on the southeast coast of Greece. You would think they would have beautiful waste-free beaches all over the country, but it isn’t always the case. In fact, the most dominant litter material in Greece is plastic accounting for 35-52% of the waste material.


The Problem

According to a 2015 article 8 million metric tonnes of plastic reach the oceans annually, and we are 82 years away from reaching peak plastic waste. Plastic poses an environmental hazard which needs to be tackled immediately and importantly, on a global scale because while some countries may dump more into the oceans than others, it usually ends up somewhere else. Marine life is affected; turtles and seabirds often confuse plastic for jellyfish and consume them and consequently starve to death. Seabirds are often found with toys, glow sticks and balloon shreds in the stomachs, and lost fishing nets and debris can pull down turtles and seals drowning them. But plastic also absorbs pollutants, such as metals and fertilisers, and it contains additives. Plastic microbeads even are present in in personal care products. This plastic which inevitably gets eaten then moves its way up the food chain towards us.


The Solution

So what is been done about this and what should be done?

Governments should invest in a waste management infrastructure by enabling a recycling and reuse scheme. Incentivising a return policy on plastic waste, in particular bottles can make a difference, and it has in some countries.

Various scientific and technological developments are paving the way for cleaning up the oceans and seas: It turns out there are organisms that have a taste for plastic. Bacteria like cells have been found living in plastic possibly consuming it which might explain why the amount of plastic in the oceans has levelled off. The wax moth Galleria mellonella has a specific taste for polyethylene and polypropylene (found in 92% of plastics). But before you think this is just an excuse to dump more plastic into our oceans, these organisms may actually just break it down into smaller pieces to have negative effects elsewhere. Indeed most of the plastic in our oceans are small shards. The truth is whether it is breaking it down or digesting it is unclear and warrants further study. But researchers are trying to investigate the specifics. For instance, is it possible to capitalise on the wax moth’s enzyme to create a plastic processing plant, which BioCellection a Californian start up is hoping to achieve, or is the marine bacteria (which is related to cholera) pathogenic.

Boyan Slat was 16 years old when he was swimming in Greece when the first evidence of the bacteria degrading plastic was discovered. But his idea to clean up the oceans was based on physics instead of biochemistry. He developed an autonomous, energy neutral and scalable system to place in the oceans to “catch” plastic. Research into strong and durable material that can persist for decades means that floaters, solid screens and anchors can be placed in the oceans accounting for various depths to collect the plastic yet withstand and even capitalise on oceanic currents. Slat eventually founded the company The Ocean Clean Up in 2013 and research, development and testing is still on-going.

Some experts actually think that preventing plastic getting into the seas maybe a better option and two prizes were recently announced that tackle this issue. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation will be awarding $1 million for an invention that can get products to people without generating plastic waste, and another $1 million will be awarded to those who can come up with a way to make all plastic packaging recyclable as at the minute only 14% of it is.


Brexit and the Government

 The Great Repeal is about to begin and we can only hope that the EU Habitat and Birds Directives and Special Protection Areas which protect the European marine sites remain. However in 2013, the Marine Coastal Access Act designated marine conservation zones which have weaker regulations than the sites to protect them. If it isn’t possible to transfer the EU directives through the Repeal, then the European marine sites might become marine conservation zones, which does not bode well for protecting them. While this may be a cause for concern the government recently announced their commitment to take a leading role in protecting the marine environment, and one of these commitments included reducing disposable plastic.


Ask not what your oceans can do for you, but what you can do for them!

There is plenty for you to do if you feel passionate about reducing plastic waste:

Firstly with the Repeal Bill looming, contact your MP to ensure the Directives and the Special Protection Areas remain in legislation. You can do this by following this link. While you are at it, you can also convince your MP to back the plastic bottle recycling deposit scheme.

Secondly, join an organisation. There is the Marine Conservation Society for those in the UK and a few international ones as well, such as Seas at Risk and one for the Mediterranean Sea Let’s do it Mediterranean!

Thirdly, you don’t necessarily have to donate money to help these organisations. Very often they will host beach clean ups which volunteers can attend. The Marine Conservation Society is having their next beach clean in September.

Finally, think about how you can reduce your plastic footprint. The Marine Conservation Society hosted the Plastic Challenge throughout June and Plastic Free UK is a directory and source of information about how to reduce plastic consumption. But both note that going completely plastic free is impossible and not necessarily desirable. Instead this is about awareness.

So let’s make a difference and reduce the plastic to ensure that we swim in clean seas, and not in plastic!

Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: http://independent.academia.edu/DanaeDodge https://www.linkedin.com/pub/danae-dodge/9b/868/389 I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: https://plus.google.com/communities/115424956261446503473