It is something most of us hardly think of as we go about our daily lives. Out of sight and out of mind, our waste is largely someone else’s problem.
The popularity of recycling (waste materials) may have soared in recent years, but this recent awakening will do little to address the 1,000-year legacy of litter and pollution we have already left for the world’s marine life.
That dropped crisp (potato chip) packet, discarded mineral water bottle or escaped plastic bag could be at the start of an epic journey around the world, sailing the Seven Seas for something close to eternity.
Hundreds of thousands of animals are thought to die every year as a result of marine litter, most of it plastic.
Plastic has several qualities that makes it particularly dangerous to sea life:
– it floats, so seabirds will scoop up what they think is a tasty snack, only to fill their stomachs with indigestible toothbrushes and disposable lighters, while filter feeders like basking sharks take in plastic particles, as fine as sand, along with plankton.
– it sinks, so creatures on the seabed are similarly affected – a study of Europe’s continental shelf found up to 262,000 piece of plastic per sq mile, most of it plastic bottles and bags.
– in the water, plastic bags and burst balloons look like jellyfish and, when swallowed, can choke animals like whales and turtles or block their gut so they starve to death.
– it lasts for hundreds of years: it is estimated that plastic can survive at sea for between 450 and 1,000 years, but some forms may never fully degrade.
Albatrosses on Hawaii have been found to have eaten plastic from Japanese fighter planes that crashed more than half a century ago.
Few people realise just how much litter there is in the sea, but sailors like Dame Ellen MacArthur see the problem at first hand.
“In the Bay of Biscay and the North Atlantic, when it is flat calm you see so much plastic debris, loads of polystyrene, fishing floats… I’ve hit a container in the North Atlantic,” she said.
“I’ve been up to the north-west of Scotland and there’s a lot of stuff, plastic, bits of rope and net, plastic bottle – there are so many plastic bottles