Marine litter is any man-made, solid material that enters waterways directly through littering or indirectly via rivers, streams and storm drains. Marine debris can be simple items such as a discarded soda can, cigarette butt, or plastic bag that ends up in the ocean potentially harming marine life. Nearly 80 percent of marine debris originates from land-based sources.
The plastic bag made of polyethylene or polypropylene which was first introduced in the 1960’s is regarded as the symbol of the consumer society. Throughout the world 600 thousand million plastic bags are produced every year. Generally they are used only once, which contrasts strongly with their long lifespan. Thin plastic bags in particular represent a serious ecological problem. They are easily tossed by the wind and have turned many stretches of land into landscapes of plastic. Or they land in rivers and streams and ultimately in the sea. In a number of countries such as France, India or China plastic bags, either all kinds or just the light ones, are now banned.
Estimates suggest that 80% of the waste from land reaches the sea through rivers. Therefore the problem of plastic waste in the sea does not affect only countries with a marine coastline but essentially all regions where plastic is used. Plastic also becomes a problem in lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.
Plastic has become a fixed part of the natural habitat. Several species of animal have learned to use this material for their own purposes. But in most cases the consequences of encountering plastic are negative, and represent a major threat both to individual animals and to the ecological system as a whole. Each year, plastic pollution kills more that 100,000 marine creatures.
Fishing nets and lines can become deadly traps for marine creatures. Fish, sea mammals and turtles become entangled in the ghost nets and suffocate or starve
Migratory birds also function as transformers and transporters of plastic: three-quarters of the plastic in the stomach of a fulmar is ground down and excreted elsewhere. The scientist reckons that in this way the birds distribute hundreds of tons of plastic worldwide and process it into micro plastic.
Many animals ingest plastic with their food. While all kinds of animals that feed on plankton also unintentionally ingest micro plastics, birds and turtles often deliberately eat pieces of plastic, as they mistake them for food. This leads to the animals starving with full stomachs, choking, or suffering internal injuries. Studies of water samples taken from the North Pacific have shown that in the upper seawater column there is, at places, 46 times as much plastic as plankton.
In 1998, a pelican was found dead in Kiama after eating 17 plastic bags. The pelican presumably thought the plastic bags were food. The pelican was preserved and named Pete. Since then he has been standing in front of a sign at Fitzroy Falls that informs visitors of how he died and the problems of plastic bags and ocean pollution.
A number of species of animals and plants benefit from the new material: they develop new ways of using plastic products. For instance birds use plastic bands to build their nests and hermit crabs employ parts of bottles as their shells. Mussels and corals settle on buckets, pipes and other objects that have sunk to the bottom of the sea.
A special new way in which organisms use pieces of plastic is known as hitch-hiking. To reproduce certain kinds of algae and plankton depend on floating material on which to lay their eggs. Previously they used vegetable material that decayed after a short time. Ever since large numbers of floating pieces of plastic became available and can be transported by currents across great distances, they use plastic as a raft and means of transport. This means that these species can travel previously inconceivable distances to reach new habitats, where they pose a massive threat to the existing ecological balance.
The islands of Hawaii are positioned in the middle of the North Pacific. At times the currents wash enormous amounts of plastic flotsam onto exposed beaches on Hawaii. At present there is more plastic than natural sand on certain beaches, for instance on Kamilo Beach now known as Plastic Beach on the south-western tip of Big Island.
The design of the mobile culture of eating is a visible expression of present-day society which always seems to be on the way to somewhere and makes a decisive contribution to littering. It’s high time that we should return back to olden methods – eating in banana leaf and palm plates and carrying tiffin boxes.
Plastics have many practical qualities. But if used thoughtlessly and in large amounts they can also have negative consequences for our environment. As the material can be produced cheaply this encourages excessive consumption at the point where, in fact, the amount should really be reduced.
Marine Debris may seem overwhelming, but there are plenty of solutions to stop the flow of trash into our oceans. Here are a few simple things you can do to prevent marine debris.