I’ve sailed past tyres floating in the Solent, fished plastic bottles out of the sea and even had to swerve around a park bench floating in the estuary where I learnt to sail. Marine litter is everywhere: on beaches, near shore and even hundreds of kilometres offshore. You can hear from the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race sailors in this video as they describe the shocking amount of marine debris they have seen as they have raced around the world in the last year.
What is marine litter?
Essentially, anything non-natural in the oceans which circulates with the currents or sinks to the sea bed, taking a long time to break down. Plastic bags, bottles, cans, rope, different materials and fibres, hooks, tyres, oil drums, cotton buds, wet wipes, nets, lines, shopping trolleys, traffic cones, lunch boxes, shoes, rubber ducks…Just about anything you can think of, it is highly likely that some has found its way into the sea, and once it is there it is very difficult to remove. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic, less than 5 mm across, which can be the remnants of broken down larger plastic items, or microbeads which are common in cosmetics and toothpaste.
How it gets there
All sorts of reasons. Often it is dropped by us and then washed into drains or rivers which eventually lead to the sea. Flushing wet wipes and other cosmetic items down the toilet also takes them out to sea. Fishing-related litter such as nets, pots and lines can all become detached or be discarded at sea. Containers washed overboard from the ships can empty their contents, leaving them to drift freely, or sink to the seabed.
What it does
Ingestion by, and entanglement of, marine life
Swirls together into vast gyres in the oceans
Works its way up the food chain into our food – Guardian 2015
Breaks down into harmful chemicals
Clean up efforts and campaigns – here are just a few
The Marine Conservation Society collected 2457 pieces of litter for every kilometre of beach they cleaned as part of their 2014 ‘Great British Beach Clean’ . They have cleaned and surveyed 301 beaches and continue to raise awareness and involve volunteers in their efforts to rescue our beaches and seas.
The 5 Gyres project is working to study the extent of the plastic pollution, campaign to remove microbeads from cosmetics and educate people on its effects.
Technology is also being developed to try to remove the plastic which is already in the oceans, such as ‘The Ocean Cleanup’ which is developing huge floating barriers to help concentrate the floating plastic into smaller areas using natural ocean currents.
The MCS launched the ‘Scrub it out’ campaign to encourage consumers to choose their toiletries more wisely, selecting only those which do not contain microbeads.
Pangaea Exploration works with 5 Gyres to assess the amount of plastic in the ocean. Their 2014 expedition, ‘eXXpedition’, was an all-female voyage across the Atlantic, raising awareness about the link between the health of the seas and our health.
What you can do
Check if your face wash and other toiletries contain plastics – you can check here. Try not to buy those that do contain them, it’s one of the easiest things you can do to minimise the amount of plastic reaching the ocean.
Use fewer plastic bags/ more reusable bags.
Don’t flush wet wipes/cotton buds etc.
Always take your litter home with you, or deposit in a bin at the beach.
If you see litter on the beach, pick it up and throw it in the bin.
Don’t try to burn litter on the beach to dispose of it – it won’t fully break down and will be washed out to sea when the tide comes in.
Making these small daily or weekly changes will contribute to reducing the amount of litter which finds its way into the oceans, helping to prevent damage which is very hard to reverse.