Plastic debris threatens marine wildlife: “Terrifying”
Bits of plastic in the stomach, chemical softeners in the blood and deadly nooses around the throat.
Almost all marine species are already thought to be negatively affected by plastic debris in the sea, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which expects plastic emissions to quadruple by 2050.
In the remote Arctic sea ice and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – eleven kilometres below the surface. Plastics are now found in all the world’s oceans and most marine species are already or will be adversely affected by the litter, according to a WWF report compiling some 2,500 studies and covering 2,144 species in the marine environment.
For example, it is estimated that around 90% of all seabirds – from albatrosses to gulls and turkeys – and more than 50% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic.
– Plastics have been found in everything from small organisms like plankton to whales and dolphins. It’s frightening,” says Inger Näslund, senior marine expert at WWF.
– In large animals such as whales and dolphins, it is discovered when they have died and become stranded. This may be because they have been internally damaged by a plastic object or because plastic has become lodged in their internal organs, preventing them from eating and starving them to death.
Expected to increase
WWF links the increasing production and consumption of the synthetic material to the fact that the oceans are filled with so much plastic. Today, consumption is 300 million tonnes – but by 2040 that figure is expected to double, according to WWF, which also predicts a four-fold increase in plastic emissions into the sea by 2050.
In pure numbers, this means an increase from 11 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the sea every year to 44 million tonnes.
– We need to stop the flow of plastic from land to sea,” says Inger Näslund.
– Plastics contain many different substances, both toxins and endocrine disruptors. In the long term, it can make species sick or negatively affect their ability to reproduce.
Threats to ecosystems
The Mediterranean Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Arctic sea ice are among the areas at risk of exceeding ecologically dangerous levels of microplastics. And it’s not just animals – marine ecosystems like coral reefs and mangroves are already facing tough threats like ocean acidification, global warming and overfishing.
– When coral animals ingest microplastics, their resistance to other threats is reduced, Näslund says.
– But mangrove roots and coral reefs also act as nurseries for fish and crustaceans. Covering them with plastic debris reduces their space, which in turn can affect biodiversity.
All kinds of plastic end up in the ocean depths – from objects falling from large container ships to broken fishing nets and ropes that tear loose in stormy weather. The big culprit, however, is single-use plastic products, which in 2018 were estimated to account for 60-95% of all plastic debris at sea.
– There are plastic bags, bottles, boxes and other things that come from land,” says Näslund.
– However, the plastic we can see with the naked eye is just the tip of a plastic mountain. A lot sinks to the bottom, we only see one percent of all the plastic in the oceans. Usually what is on the beaches.
It is difficult and costly to catch plastic that has already been in the water – and once it has broken down into microplastics, it is virtually impossible. The issue of stemming the plastic tide will be addressed when the UN Environment Assembly meets at the end of the month. More than 150 countries are behind the call to start negotiating a global legally binding plastics agreement.
– International negotiations take time. But we need to agree on how to manage the plastic and how to reduce the discharge into the sea,” says Näslund.
– Regulatory systems are needed for the production, disposal and trade of plastics. We already have a lot of plastic, the best thing would be to reuse it to stop the proliferation and manufacture of single-use plastic.
The report “Impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean on marine species, biodiversity and ecosystems” has been produced for WWF by the German Alfred Wegener Institute, which researches marine and polar issues.
It is a summary of more than 2,500 research studies and is described as one of the most comprehensive in the field to date.
The report indicates that 2,144 species in the marine environment are affected by plastic pollution in the marine areas covered by the review.
Scientists estimate that up to 90% of all seabirds and 52% of all sea turtles ingest plastic.
Around 99% of plastic’s raw materials come from oil and fossil energy, so-called virgin plastic. 11 million tons of plastic debris leaks to the oceans each year from land and a smaller part from shipping and fishing.