Essay on Ocean Clean-up Solution to Plastic Pollution

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Introduction

Plastic pollution in the waters has been a massive environmental issue affecting the entire ecosystem. A recent study estimated that a minimum of 5.25 trillion plastic particles are floating within the water bodies, weighing 268,940 tons (Eriksen et al., 2014). Plastic particles are hazardous objects to marine organisms that either become entangled or ingest plastic (Stefatos, Charalampakis, Papatheodorou, & Ferentinos, 1999). Plastics are synthetic polymers that are durable, strong, anti-corrosion, not biodegradable, and cheap. Although plastics can be degraded when exposed to UV radiation, it is unknown how long it takes to completely degrade in marine environments (Andrady, 2005; Moore, 2008). It was estimated that 50% of the plastic products produced are meant to be disposable, which had significantly increased over the past few decades (Hopewell, Dvorak, & Kosior, 2009). Plastic particles can be categorized into macroplastics and microplastics. Macroplastics can cause marine organisms to be entangled whereas microplastics (50% of the plastic debris in the water bodies (Tibbetts, 2015). Another study observed that a bulk of the beached and floating plastic debris originally came from the coastal activities in the northern South China Sea (Lee et al., 2013). Accidental spillage of raw manufacturing materials during the handling process also contributes to large amounts of plastic debris that were directed to beaches (Redford, Trulli, & Trulli, 1997). Other land-based sources include sewage waste and refuse site leachate (Browne, Galloway, & Thompson, 2010). This plastic debris is transported to the marine environment by wastewater treatment and river systems (Browne et al., 2010; Cole, Lindeque, Halsband, & Galloway, 2011). In addition, natural disasters such as flooding and hurricane increase of transport of land-based debris to the water bodies. (Barnes, Galgani, Thompson, & Barlaz, 2009)

The majority of ocean-based debris is linked to commercial fishing activity. Every year, an estimated 640,000 t of discarded fishing gear were lost in the marine environment, which accounts for 10% of the total debris in the water bodies (Good, June, Etnier, & Broadhurst, 2010). Sinking fishing boats and fleets were also a huge contributor to the source of ocean-based debris (Cawthorn, 1989). These discarded fishing equipment may cause entanglement of marine organisms which was termed as ghost fishing. There were multiple studies that showed a significant positive correlation between commercial fishing activity and the amount of ocean-based debris (Cunningham & Wilson, 2003; Edyvane, Dalgetty, Hone, Higham, & Wace, 2004; Ribic, Sheavly, Rugg, & Erdmann, 2010). This suggests that commercial fishing does indeed play a large role in contributing to plastic pollution.

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Types of plastics

Primary microplastics are plastics produced to have a microscopic size. They are mainly used in cosmetics and facial cleansers, as drug vectors in medicine, and as air-blasting media. Although the current technology for wastewater filtration can remove 99% of microplastics, they are still significant due to their absolute amount. Hence, it is easy for microplastics to entire the water bodies and steadily accumulate within the marine environment. A study had shown that washing clothes were one of the most significant sources of microplastics in the environment due to the sewage contaminated by fibers (Browne et al., 2011). The ratio of acrylic (22%) and polyester fibers (78%) found on the shores from washing were similar to the microplastics found in the marine environment (Engelhardt, 2009). There was also a positive correlation between human population density and the amount of microplastics (Engelhardt, 2009).

Secondary microplastics are when the larger pieces of plastics start breaking down and fragmentizing into smaller debris (Ryan, Moore, van Franeker, & Moloney, 2009). Plastics are estimated to last from months to thousands of years, but research has shown that the fragmentation of plastics can be due to several processes such as chemical, physical and biological that can affect the structural integrity of the plastic detritus (Browne, Galloway, & Thompson, 2007; Zheng, Yanful, & Bassi, 2005). One of the main causes of plastic fragmentation is weathering (Arthur, Baker, & Bamford, 2009). Mechanical and chemical weathering can lead to the fragmentation of plastic on beaches due to its favorable environment (Corcoran, Biesinger, & Grifi, 2009). Sunlight can also cause photodegradation from the ultraviolet radiation that can cause the chemical bonds to break in the polymer (Barnes et al., 2009). As such, plastic debris on beaches has much higher direct exposure to sunlight as compared to those in the water bodies (Browne et al., 2007). Lastly, mechanical forces such as abrasion and wave action can also cause plastic debris to fragmentize (Barnes et al., 2009). Current researchers are trying to create biodegradable plastics that have the integration of vegetable oils and starch that can reduce the degradation period (Derraik, 2002). However, the synthetic polymer will still accumulate in the water bodies if not properly disposed of as shown in Figure 1.

Macroplastics are generalized as being an object >25mm in size, and have been a major environmental issue in terms of pollution in the water bodies (Romeo et al., 2015). It has been a huge issue since the 1990s and recently, it has attracted more public attention as well as government intervention (Li, Tse, & Fok, 2016; Shomura & Godfrey, 1990). It is difficult to analyze potential trends in pollution as the clean-up campaigns normally focus on plastic items found on the shoreline and beaches. Despite being bigger, larger marine organisms still ingest them and smaller organisms can get entangled (Derraik, 2002).

Effects on marine life

Microplastics and macroplastics can harm marine organisms when ingested as plastic debris can affect the body’s function to maintain homeostasis (Fendall & Sewell, 2009; Wright, Rowe, Thompson, & Galloway, 2013). It leads to chronic effects that can be fatal in the long run (Wright et al., 2013). Seabirds are one of the main victims of ingesting plastic debris as they tend to forage for food in the marine environment. Although some species of marine wildlife are able to regurgitate or excrete ingested plastic particles, seabirds, unfortunately, do not have such capabilities (Li et al., 2016; Thompson et al., 2004). The accumulation of plastic particles in their bodies can lead to physiological damages such as a reduction in food consumption, activity levels, and feeding stimuli (Derraik, 2002). This issue has been persistent since the 1960s whereby it was reported that plastic fragments were found in the guts of seabirds (Ryan et al., 2009). Other marine organisms are also vulnerable to plastic ingestion as the plastic particles were mistaken for food and difficult to distinguish between the two (Avery-Gomm, Provencher, Morgan, & Bertram, 2013). Fishes are also susceptible to macroplastic and microplastic ingestion that could cause gastrointestinal blockage, which can result in malnutrition and weakening of the body. One study reported that 36.5% of the 504 fishes they studied had plastic particles in the intestinal tract (Lusher, Mchugh, & Thompson, 2013). Plastic ingestion by fish is mainly caused by predation activities, especially while chasing their prey into shallow water (Li et al., 2016; Romeo et al., 2015). Also, secondary ingestion of plastic through smaller fishes while hunting can also accumulate plastic fragments within the body (Battaglia et al., 2013).

Recommendation

From a global perspective, governments have to work together to control the accumulation of plastic debris in water bodies as there is a lack of legislation and regulation (Arthur et al., 2009). This is to prevent the future accumulation of plastic debris produced by industrial activities that would exacerbate this issue. As such, stricter and regular inspections of the industries involved should be implemented. In addition, harsher penalties should be given to those who significantly contribute to plastic pollution. Other regulations that could be implemented would be to ban disposable plastic items such as plastic bags, straws, and cups. An example would be Australia’s two biggest supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, which phased out single-use plastic bags in 2018 (Slezak, 2017). This act was a small stepping stone to encourage people to reduce the usage of plastic goods.

In addition to government intervention in prevention, there is a crucial need to invest in developing technologies that can remove plastics from water bodies. Although it is unlikely to clean up all microplastics in the waters due to their ubiquity, many companies have begun to spread awareness by removing them. Several organizations include The Ocean Clean-up, Seabin Project, and 4Ocean. All of them have the same objective which is to remove as much debris floating in the marine environment as they could. The Ocean Clean-up estimates that they can clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years with their new technology (TheOceanClean-up, 2017). Since 2017, 4Ocean had removed 4.7m pounds of trash from the waters (CBS, 2019). There are also 1,500 Seabins deployed around the world that each collects half a ton of debris annually (Myers, 2019).

Lastly, spreading awareness of the consequences of plastic pollution to consumers and producers can help decrease the demand for disposable plastic. By doing so, producers can find substitutes and alternatives to synthetic polymers. When there is a lack of demand from both consumers, producers naturally reduce the supply. This will naturally lead to lesser plastic pollution as there will be fewer disposable plastic items produced.

Conclusion

In conclusion, plastic pollution is ubiquitous throughout the entire water bodies that originate from land-based sources and ocean-based sources. Commercialized fishing and industrial activities are the two main contributors to plastic pollution. Plastic debris will last for a long time due to it being corrosive-resistant and non-biodegradable when it reaches the marine environment. As such, it has a negative effect on marine organisms such as seabirds, fishes, and turtles that can ingest or get entangled in plastic debris. This could cause lethal harm to these marine organisms and damage the ecosystem. Certain species could potentially become extinct through the fatality of plastic pollution. Lastly, government legislative intervention was recommended to control the plastic wastage of industries. In addition, many companies have been recently active in cleaning up the oceans and spreading awareness.

References

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