The world’s oceans and seas are quickly turning into vast garbage dumps, with plastics representing an increasingly large portion of the debris that’s finding its way into marine life and even human food supplies.
ATHENS, Greece — The rocky shores of Anavyssos in southern Greece are a magnet for European travelers, who flock to the pristine blue sea, swimming spots, hotels and seafood restaurants. Right along the two lane highway that brings visitors just 30 miles south of Athens, one can walk a mere five feet off the road and jump into the refreshing — if incredibly salty — water.
Little in the way of litter is seen on the beaches, as the tourist economy depends on maintaining the natural ambiance. This apparent cleanliness, however, belies the fact that thousands of tons of marine litter and debris lurk underwater off the shore in the Mediterranean Sea. This rubbish — mostly plastics — is finding its way into the ecology and the human food supply.
“We are finding substantial microplastic in the stomachs of fish,” said Dr. Evangelos Papathanassiou, research director at the Hellenic Center for Marine Research, which sits on the same southern Greek coast as many of the hotels and tourist destinations catering to beachgoers.
Papathanassiou coordinates the research center’s Perseus Project, which studies, among other things, the impact of waste on the Mediterranean and Black seas.
Like the oceans, “The Mediterranean has gyres, so you have a lot of it concentrated in some areas,” he told MintPress News. “Plastic remains there forever.”
It’s a global issue not only affecting the open oceans such as the Atlantic and the Pacific, but also regional seas such as the Mediterranean, Black, Baltic, Caspian, Red and Dead seas and shallow ocean areas.
Many people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex of debris and litter caught in the North Pacific Gyre estimated by some to be twice the size of Texas. However, the oceans and seas themselves are quickly becoming vast garbage dumps, with plastic comprising a greater and greater share of the overall volume of marine litter and representing a growing threat to underwater life.
“Marine litter has many damaging aspects,” said Tatjana Hema, a program officer with the United Nations program on marine pollution, who covers the Mediterranean Sea. “It’s dangerous, it’s a threat to human health and it’s a threat to marine biodiversity.”
Hema spoke to MintPress on the sidelines of a U.N. conference held earlier this week in Athens on protecting the regional seas. Conference attendees discussed plans to eliminate the dispersal of human-made waste into the seas and oceans. In the initial phases, signatory nations are discussing ways to eliminate the sources of the 6.4 tons of waste that enter the seas every year, of which plastics constitute an ever-growing portion.
However, Hema acknowledged much damage has already been done, as an unquantifiable amount of litter already rests below the sea surface and on the ocean floor, and, worse, hides in plain sight.
Little of the plastic in the oceans can be seen by the naked eye, much of it having been broken down into “microplastic” from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays and ocean water. In fact, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is mostly invisible.
However, its miniscule size makes it all the more dangerous, with recent studies finding microplastics in our food supply. Recently, plastic microbeads found in cosmetics have gained a lot of attention and have even been banned in some areas. Yet even most large plastic items eventually break down into micro-components, making them equally hazardous.
“The problem is so extensive right now that many scientists recognize it’s almost impossible to clean it up in the short term,” said Vincent Sweeney, coordinator of the U.N.’s Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities.
While many nations are enacting legislation to reduce waste from land and instituting beach cleanups and removals of floating debris, it is much more difficult to eliminate microplastics and even the larger pieces of debris that float instream just a few meters below the surface. Additionally, a recent report found that even the ocean floors are covered with litter.
Sweeney says that stopping waste from entering the oceans to begin with would be a major first step that could eventually lead to cleaner seas.
“If we were able to collect all of our waste, the problem of marine litter would largely be eliminated,” he told MintPress at the conference. Regardless of what happens with the plastic in the ocean already, “If we don’t stop it at the source, we are fighting a losing battle.”
The ubiquitous plastic bag
Such optimism is what led California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill banning plastic bags this week. The law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, makes the state the most significant jurisdiction to move toward eliminating one of the most visible factors of ocean pollution. (Dozens of cities worldwide have already banned plastic bags, as have some countries, while many other states and countries charge fees for each non-reusable plastic bags without banning them outright.)
“A throw-away society is not sustainable,” the bill’s author, State Sen. Alex Padilla said in a statement. “This new law will greatly reduce the flow of billions of single-use plastic bags that litter our communities and harm our environment each year.”
However, those numbers also indicate that the industry, worth $10 billion per year, is not likely to wither without a fight. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry trade group, has already vowed to push to repeal the law through a referendum, claiming the legislation was “never about the environment.”
“It was a back room (sic) deal between the grocers and union bosses to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars without providing any public benefit – all under the guise of environmentalism,” the group said in a statement.
The group has run political ads targeting Padilla. Another group, called the Save the Plastic Bag Campaign, also routinely files lawsuits against municipalities enacting bag bans and now has a state legislation target. (The group has not had much success in prior litigation.)
It’s not just the manufacturers of plastic bags that have a stake in this issue, but also the producers of polyethylene, the primary ingredient in light, thin plastics such as those used for plastic bags and single-use plastic bottles. Polyethylene, made from the ethane found in natural gas, is produced by companies such as Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemical.
Despite such aggressive tactics to preserve their markets, back at the U.N. Conference on Regional Seas, many of the participants appear to believe there is common ground to be found.
“We will be talking with the plastic industry,” said Gaetano Leone, coordinator of the Barcelona Convention, an agreement among all 21 countries in the Mediterranean region to protect the Mediterranean and Black Seas. “We need to bring them on board. This project deals with sustainable consumption and production and requires an approach from all possible angles.”
Leone professes a personal desire to see change, though some pessimism slips through.
“When I go to the beach, those are the moments I wonder whether we can do it,” he told MintPress. “I was born and grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean and remember the beaches from my childhood and I see the impact, not just from litter but also of what climate change does.”
Still, he has hope that by 2025 — the year for which the U.N. hopes to have some tangible goals set — improvement will be clear.
“The Mediterranean is much cleaner now that it was 10 or 15 years ago because we are responding to the situation,” he said. “The greatest achievement is that we have managed to seat all 21 countries around the table, nations that may be at war but they do come together when we’re talking about the environment. There are political tensions and religious divides, but on issues of sustainable development they do sit around the table for joint action and joint decisions.”
As the amount of plastic produced and consumed continues to rise at a far faster rate each year, however, 2025 may come very quickly. It’s not yet clear how stringent the goals will be and when — if ever — the oceans will find clarity.