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Photo: Caroline Power

5 reasons we seriously need to protect our oceans from plastic

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, the plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish.

By Susan Nerberg

At least eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year. And the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, the plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish. Here are more reasons we should be worried.

1. Chemical concentrate
Synthetic microfibres from human-made fabrics make up most of the plastics found in oceans, lakes and rivers. They’re not biodegradable and can leach chemicals into the water. They also bind pollutants such as flame retardants and pesticides, forming toxic molecules that are ingested by micro-organisms like plankton, which are then consumed by fish. The pollutants accumulate in higher concentrations the further they travel up the food chain — all the way to humans.

2. Down below
If microplastics become buried in the sediment of lakes, they stick around and could wreak havoc for a very long time. According to a recent study, plastic pellets have been accumulating in the bottom of Lake Ontario for some 40 years.

3. Waste vortex
Plastic pollution in waterways includes pieces of visible debris, such as plastic bottles, ropes, jerry cans and various other items bobbing around in giant garbage patches buoyed by the planet’s five major ocean gyres (large systems of currents). No matter where the trash ends up, it often has lethal consequences for marine life.

4. Faux food
Turtles die when they mistake wet wipes and plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. Mammals, including whales and sea lions, get entangled in our mess and drown. Or they, too, unwittingly consume plastic, which blocks their digestive tracts and causes pain and starvation.

5. Globe-trotting garbage
Plastic waste is found as far away as the Arctic and has even made it into creatures living in ultra-deep sea trenches, such as the Mariana Trench, 10,000 metres below surface. Cities have experienced floods due to plastic waste clogging sewer systems.

This story first appeared in The Observer's April 2018 edition with the title "In deep water."
Q & A with Dirk Xanthos
Photo: Courtesy of Nick Pearce
Photo: Courtesy of Nick Pearce

Halifax-based Dirk Xanthos researches and writes about plastic pollution. We caught up with him before he headed to the Sixth International Marine Debris Conference.

Q How has the level of plastic pollution changed in our oceans?

A About 80 percent of marine plastic waste comes from land-based sources, and the amount has risen exponentially in recent decades. This has particularly been a waste-management issue in developing countries, where recycling programs are limited. China has stopped accepting certain categories of plastic from developed countries, including Canada.

Q What is the biggest threat to aquatic ecosystems from plastics?

A If there’s a positive about macroplastics — items that measure more than five millimetres — it’s that you can see them. Microplastics and microfibres, however, are so minuscule that microscopes are often needed to see the quantifiable impact plastic is having. Current research shows that the ingestion of plastics by both small and large marine species is contributing to high mortality rates.

Q How would you tackle marine plastic?

A The most urgent issue is to address the sources of pollution. Short term, this needs local action groups to organize beach and community cleanups and to educate the public. Governments also need to introduce laws and regulations that restrict how much disposable plastic is consumed and make businesses responsible for managing the plastic waste they produce.

Q What are some positive developments?

A Plastic bags have been banned or are taxed in many U.S. counties and states, in some municipalities in Canada and in many nations around the world. Microbeads have been banned in the United States and Canada. The United Kingdom has made progress on the issues. On an international policy level, there have also been positive developments. As the 2018 host of the G7 Summit this June, Canada recently announced it is pushing for international intervention on reducing ocean plastic pollution. Late in 2017, at the United Nations Environment Assembly, nearly 200 countries agreed to a non-legally binding treaty to eliminate plastic pollution in the ocean. There is some hope.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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