Next blog post by our IYOR intern, Talia Wong, on marine trash:
In the summer of 2017, I was fortunate enough to intern at Marine Conservation Cambodia where I learnt more about the marine life surrounding near the island of Koh Seh, specifically on seahorses. Concurrently, we were doing beach clean-ups every few days. In our bags were the usual culprits like wood planks, toys, lighters, rubber bands and slippers, glass bottles, plastic containers, caps and cutlery … But as Southeast Asia boasts one of the strongest fishing industries in the world, it came as no surprise when we found loads of fishing float hooks, fish and crab cages (big ones that weigh at least 7kg!), nets all which broke away from their fishers. What stunned (and honestly, scared) me the most was the medical trash we found such as syringes – some with needles still attached – forgive my ignorance, it was my first time picking them up during a beach clean-up.
Most of the rubbish picked up had Vietnamese wordings on them. And this magnifies the scale of trash further. The reason why I brought this up wasn’t to finger point someone but to show how trash is borderless and it is more imperative for administrations to work together.
Simply conducting beach clean ups daily or every week is not enough and in the long run, ineffective. And, utilising debris skimmer boats is costly with engines that require constant maintenance and skills to power. These boats do not tackle the root of the problem as well.
WHAT IS MARINE TRASH?
Marine trash is anything that is man-made and doesn’t belong to the ocean. It can be intentionally dumped or unintentionally leaked into water bodies which then flows into our oceans. Catastrophic events i.e. tsunami, hurricanes or floods can carry out large amounts of it into the ocean. This waste includes glass, metals, paper, textiles, wood (although there is natural debris), rubber and plastics and it ranges from micrometres to metres in size.
Marine trash ends up either along coastlines or accumulates and circulates in the centre of gyres due to current patterns. Currently, there are 5 known gyres where debris accumulates with the North Pacific Ocean gyre, also known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ being the most well-known due to its size.
WE LIVE IN A ‘PLASTIC AGE’
Since its introduction in the late 1800s, plastic has become so intimately interwoven into our everyday lives and has led to the flourishing of economies and societies. Yet, as much as we depend on them, we toss them out more easily. In doing so, we upset the balance of the marine ecosystem.
Plastic accounts for the most abundant material collected as marine trash and this poses severe consequences for marine life. At the end of 2017, a viral photo of a lone seahorse holding onto a discarded cotton swab for dear life depicted the grim reality of our plastic pollution.
Common interactions between marine life and trash consist of entanglement and ingestion which often lead to external or internal injury and ultimately, death. Floating debris could bring invasive species into the new site and potentially upset the existing ecosystem balance. Debris found on the seafloor have also been proven to interfere with light penetration and the exchange of oxygen.
Last but not the least, it gets personal. Through bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxic additives found in plastic, marine life who have successfully consumed the plastic and are caught by fishermen could mean that the toxins end up on our plates and basically into our bodies. And for all the fishers and sailors out there, marine trash are navigational hazards and can possibly sink their boats.
At the start, I mentioned about all the medical trash that comes in waves and it’s true not just at Cambodia. During the late 80s, there was an environmental disaster known as “The Great Syringe Tide” over in the United States. Fearing injury, beaches along the Atlantic coast were closed and tourism took a dip.
SO, WHAT NOW?
Well, we all know what I’m going to say next. And instead of sounding like a broken record – which I hope that hasn’t been the case so far – why not start by ditching those single-use items and invest in something durable. For example, rather than using disposable straws, purchase bamboo or metal straw or better yet, go without a straw and drink right out of the cup/glass!
On a larger scale, coastal cities play a vital role in developing proper waste management systems as their growing numbers already places high pressure on the environment. Improper and irresponsible waste disposal is a stressor which we can minimize. It also reduces the possibilities of them getting swept out by retreating tsunami or storm surges into the ocean.
Today, innovative solutions that deals with our ever-increasing plastic waste are popping up. One of them involves the construction of roads using waste plastic. Since plastic is very durable, it fits seamlessly into the idea of constructing roads that will last and are not as vulnerable to cracks and potholes.
With our oceans slowly suffocating and dying, the increasing awareness and knowledge on marine trash has created and sustained a greater movement towards minimizing our plastic consumption. Be it by national governments or in schools, we deserve a pat on our back. And unless we want plastic on our plates, as individuals, we should work towards reducing our plastic footprint.
You can check out this awesome documentary: A Plastic Ocean
And here’s the extent of the plastic pollution in the Caribbean Sea.
Till next time!
References journal articles
Axelsson, Charles, and Erik van Sebille. “Prevention Through Policy: Urban Macroplastic Leakages To The Marine Environment During Extreme Rainfall Events.” Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 124, no. 1, 2017, pp. 211-227. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.07.024.
Cozar, A. et al. “Plastic Debris In The Open Ocean.” Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 111, no. 28, 2014, pp. 10239-10244. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1314705111.
Green, Dannielle Senga et al. “Impacts Of Discarded Plastic Bags On Marine Assemblages And Ecosystem Functioning.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol 49, no. 9, 2015, pp. 5380-5389. American Chemical Society (ACS), doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b00277.
Law, Kara Lavender. “Plastics In The Marine Environment.” Annual Review Of Marine Science, vol 9, no. 1, 2017, pp. 205-229. Annual Reviews, doi:10.1146/annurev-marine-010816-060409.
Löhr, Ansje et al. “Solutions For Global Marine Litter Pollution.” Current Opinion In Environmental Sustainability, vol 28, 2017, pp. 90-99. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2017.08.009.
Rahul Prakash, K. V. et al. “Automatic Trash Removal System In Water Bodies.” International Journal Of Engineering Science And Computing (IJESC), vol 7, no. 4, 2017, pp. 6674-6678. International Journal Of Engineering Science And Computing (IJESC), http://ijesc.org/upload/b632055f7e58189ac3f2bd04ddc5347f.Automatic%20Trash%20Removal%20System%20in%20Water%20Bodies.pdf.
Rochman, Chelsea M. et al. “The Ecological Impacts Of Marine Debris: Unraveling The Demonstrated Evidence From What Is Perceived.” Ecology, vol 97, no. 2, 2016, pp. 302-312. Wiley-Blackwell, doi:10.1890/14-2070.1.
Uneputty, Prulley, and S.M. Evans. “The Impact Of Plastic Debris On The Biota Of Tidal Flats In Ambon Bay (Eastern Indonesia).” Marine Environmental Research, vol 44, no. 3, 1997, pp. 233-242. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/s0141-1136(97)00002-0.
Williams, Shawn. “Trophic Transfer Of Microplastics In The Marine Food Web.” 2017, pp. 1-28. Researchgate, doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.30917.96489.
Xanthos, Dirk, and Tony R. Walker. “International Policies To Reduce Plastic Marine Pollution From Single-Use Plastics (Plastic Bags And Microbeads): A Review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 118, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 17-26. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.02.048.