The proliferation of plastic shows no signs of slowing down. An estimated 300 million tonnes are produced every year – much of which is used just once, before being cast aside and left to rot. Many scientists now believe that it’s only a matter of time before our disposable lifestyle catches up with us and truly takes its toll on the environment – indeed, the warning signs are already in place. It is estimated that 6.4 million tonnes of rubbish makes its way into the sea on an annual basis, with reports from the United Nations suggesting that 142 million tonnes of plastic waste have already accumulated across the ocean’s surfaces. The propagation of plastic trash was most recently highlighted during the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, where search and rescue efforts were further complicated by the untold quantities of unrelated ocean debris.
The problem is by no means exclusive to the IndoPacific region, however. Plastic can be found in each and every one of our oceans, crossing scores of international boundaries to invade even the most remote places on Earth. A recent scientific study of the European sea-bed painted a particularly bleak picture, highlighting that our trash can now be found in all marine habitats, from the shores to the ocean surface and – most shockingly - onto several deep-sea sites not yet explored by humans.
As if such stories weren’t depressing enough, the damaging detritus also has catastrophic consequences for international ocean dwellers. As well as acting as a sort-of transportation device for invasive species (potentially disrupting habitats), marine debris also forms a physical threat for many marine mammals, turtles and sea-birds, all of whom are at acute risk of death by ingestion or entrapment. The physical manifestations brought about by our plastic dependency are just the beginning of our problems, however. Once in the ocean, plastic does not simply disappear but rather breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces - part of a lengthy decomposition process which takes 100s of years to complete, all the while emitting tiny toxins which wreak havoc on our ocean ecosystems. From bottom feeders to apex predators and then on to humans, these poisonous micro-plastic polymers slowly work their way through the food chain, bringing with them a whole host of health risks. Already proven to cause liver damage to fish, micro-plastic pollutants have also been linked to reproductive and development problems – food for thought the next time you pick up a plastic bag at the supermarket. 50