Published 08 June 2017
Today is World Oceans Day, and it calls for reflection on how our disposable lifestyles are negatively impacting the health of our oceans and marine life.
Earlier this week SEI and Sydney Ideas hosted a screening of ‘A Plastic Ocean‘ – a documentary that draws attention to the consequences of plastic pollution on our oceans, and human and animal health.
Since the mass production of plastic began in the 1950s, the majority of people from affluent countries have adopted a disposable lifestyle, which relies heavily on plastics. Our reliance on plastic is evident by looking at our surroundings. Ask yourself, what are my possessions made of? What is my food wrapped in? What fibres make up my clothes? For most of us, it’s plastic.
‘A Plastic Ocean‘ explained that our reliance on plastic has consequences, and argue that ‘we are now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.’
Our ocean floors are littered with plastic that will never degrade and will likely outlive us all. The image bellow from the film showcases a collection of plastic bags and bottles that have been there for years, with little chance of degrading.
A more insidious aspect of plastic pollution is microplastic, which is plastic that has broken up and separated over time, sweeping tiny pieces of plastic across the world’s oceans. Microplastic is detrimental to marine species and birds who eat the tiny pieces of plastic floating on the ocean surface.
One segment of the film features Dr. Jennifer Lavers who researches the rate of plastic related deaths in species of Seabirds. The film shows that Seabirds cannot differentiate between plastic and food, and eat enormous amounts of plastic which ultimately result in their death. The image below highlights the amount of plastic found in the stomach of one Seabird. The Seabird will decompose, but the plastic will remain.
Plastic pollution also impacts human health, especially in the regions where our waste is dumped. ‘A Plastic Ocean‘ takes us to the Philipines where people are living on a mountain of decades-old garbage in Manila and are forced to grow their food on top of the garbage mountain. For many, a main source of income is sifting through garbage looking for recyclable plastics and cans to sell, resulting in high rates of tuberculosis from the bacteria festering in the garbage, and emphysema from the smoke caused by methane gas that seeps from the mountain of trash.
What can we do about our plastic oceans?
‘A Plastic Ocean‘ explains that there are no quick fixes for these problems, and it may be impossible for us eliminate plastics completely as we are so dependent on them in our everyday lives. However, the film does offer strategies to reduce our plastic waste.
- Reduce your use of common plastics – choose not to purchase items packaged with plastic and opt for cloth, cardboard, and paper.
- Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on – opt for a reusable travel mug, and metal and glass drink bottles.
- Recycle properly – If you must use plastic or it can’t be avoided, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene as they are often unrecyclable.
- Policy – The film suggests that local governments should create incentives for individuals to recycle, by implementing a refund scheme for the return of plastic bottles.
- Technology – They suggest recently developed technologies may have the answers for turning unrecyclable plastics into fuel.
If we are to address the issues of plastic pollution, it is clear that it is up to us to change the way we view and consume plastic. On this World Ocean Day, reflect on what your patterns of consumption and disposal are doing to our oceans, and how you as an individual can contribute to changing our plastic culture.
Anastasia Mortimer is the Knowledge Translation Officer & Communications Coordinator at The Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours in Sociology at the University of Sydney in 2016 and was awarded First-class Honours. Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power between the State Government and Kimberly First Australians in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.