The plastic problem facing our oceans

To find out more about plastic pollution, we interviewed Tim Silverwood – a passionate surfer and environmentalist who in 2011, embarked on a voyage across 5,000 km of ocean from Honolulu to Vancouver to research the floating plastic is lands in the North Pacific Gyre or Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

What’s the problem?

We once thought of our oceans as the final frontiers; unexplored, unknown, and in some places, unreachable. Research has now shown this is no longer the case – we are living in the age of plastic pollution, where even the Antarctic is floating in an invisible plastic soup.

The proliferation of plastic products over the last 70 years has been astonishing, with close to 300m tonnes of new plastic produced every year – of which about 10% ends up in the sea. Research from The Ocean Clean Up estimates there is more than 7.25million tonnes of plastic floating in our oceans. Common marine debris includes things like; cigarette butts, cans, plastic bags and bottles, styrofoam, balloons, lighters, and toothbrushes, as well as bigger items like discarded or lost fishing gear. Over time these plastic items breakdown into smaller pieces, often invisible to the naked eye, at which point they become irrevocably ingrained into the marine ecosystem.

According to a recent study, each square kilometre of Australian sea surface water is contaminated by around 4,000 pieces of tiny plastics. As environmentalist Tim Silverwood points out in our interview; “In Australia we’re using over 12 billion beverage containers every year to satisfy our desires for a convenient cold drink. Add to that the fact that we are only recycling approximately 40% of these and you have a pretty serious problem on your hands”.

As might be expected, plastic waste is more prevalent around populated coastal areas. However, once plastic waste enters the oceans it is infl uenced by global currents, which distribute it around the world. These ocean currents create zones of convergence where large amounts of plastic waste accumulate – these have now become the most potent symbol of the problem and are called gyres. There are now five major ocean gyres worldwide, the largest of which is known as the “Great Ocean Garbage Patch”.

Contrary to popular belief, these plastic vortexes are not floating piles of rubbish, but areas where tiny fragments accumulate more profusely, making them hard to monitor and almost impossible to clean up.

Unsurprisingly, all this plastic is causing a number of serious issues. The larger items are washing up on our beaches, devastating untouched ecosystems and killing seabirds and other animals which mistake them for prey – the plastic fills their stomachs and consequently starves them. The smaller particles, termed ‘micro plastics’ are causing another altogether more serious threat. These tiny pieces, which make up the ‘plastic soup’ often used to describe the consistency of the gyres, absorb toxic chemicals (including PCBs and DDTs), increasing the concentration a million times. These poisonous plastic pills are now entering the food chain after being consumed by small fish and plankton.

What’s the solution?

Tim Silverwood has launched an incredible organisation called Take3, and he now dedicates his life to raising awareness of the issue. Tim is an advocate for documentary films, ‘Bag it’ and ‘Trashed,’ which provide more information about the environmental impact that plastic is inflicting on our planet.

We chat to Tim about the solution to our plastic problem.

Tell us about your beach clean initiative, Take 3 – how did the campaign begin and what impact do you hope it will have?

My journey started a few years ago when I travelled South East Asia and India and was shocked to see the huge levels of trash entering waterways and the ocean. I was confronted by the realisation that the problem didn’t stop there and the beautiful Australian beaches where I’d grown up surfing were under threat from levels of plastic pollution I’d never thought imaginable.

I started organising informal beach clean ups in my local area on the Central Coast of NSW and together with Amanda Marechal and Roberta Dixon-Valk, I helped establish ‘Take 3 – A Clean Beach Initiative’. We are a non-profit organisation and we encourage everyone to simply take three pieces of rubbish with them when they visit a beach, waterway or coastal area.

The beauty of Take 3 is that you can do it anywhere, anytime and it won’t cost you time or money.

What do you think is the long-term solution to cleaning up our oceans?

While trying to clear up the plastic pollution that’s already out there is great, the long-term solution has got to be a change in the system. We need to tackle the cause and alter the way we think about plastic production and consumption. We need sustainable resource management and essentially the system to really change at its core.

It’s very clear to me that the Government needs to take action on this issue. They need to introduce legislation that will regulate the production industry and also change the way we manage waste. One of the most effective ways we can do this is to put pressure on the industries – particularly the drinks industry, to incorporate better product design and introduce solutions for recycling its products. We need to put the responsibility of dealing with the waste generated by these pervasive products back onto the producers of these items. We call this extended producer responsibility and it’s crucial if we’re going to tackle this.

Legislation change is essential for dealing with problem plastic items such as ultra-thin plastic bags, bottles, cups, and styrofoam. Campaigns focused on reducing our consumption, such as banning plastic bags have been hugely successful globally and in Australia – we just need them rolled out nationwide. The same principle applies for plastic bottles – the Cash for Containers scheme, for example, has worked successfully in South Australia for decades. By simply placing a 10 cent incentive on PET bottles, South Australia has been able to achieve a 74% recycling rate!

To support the nationwide adoption of a beverage container deposit system, visit boomerangalliance.org.au and show your support for a system that will bring about a huge decrease in the amount of bottles littered each year.

Are you hopeful we’ll be able to protect our oceans in the long term?

Whilst the oceans are vast and very resilient, they’re not immune to human impacts. We’ve got a long way to go to ensure the ongoing health and viability of our oceans and I strongly believe Australia has a duty to set a high standard and a global precedent. We have the national love of our oceans, the established industries, the education, the resources, and all the required skills to make drastic changes. Politics have to be put aside to protect our oceans for future generations.

When you consider the scale of impacts including pollution and over-fishing in some developing nations, one could easily think the oceans are doomed. However, I think this is the more reason for us to step up now and set an example of how it can be done!

See Tim’s top five tips for what you can do to help.

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As an organisation, Australian Ethical strives to support companies who provide solutions to global trends and problems. We invest in innovative companies who are involved in waste management and recycling, such as Interface, which empowers developing communities in the Philippines by paying them to rescue old fishing nets, which it then recycles to create high quality carpets. Find out more about our ethical approach and some of the companies we invest in here: australianethical.com.au/our-ethical-approach.

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