On a calm sunny day of summer 2010, I was diving in one of the most beautiful marine protected areas of the Mediterranean, the Cabrera National Park of Spain. After an hour of peacefully gliding along the lush seascapes teeming with massive groupers in crystal clear waters, it was time to ascend to the safety stop. As I hovered at 5 meters below the surface, I was slowly surrounded by tiny particles brought in by the current. Within seconds, a soup of plastic had clouded the entire site, and I surfaced, appalled by the contrast of what I had witnessed. The sea knows no boundaries, and nor do the revolting pollutions that we constantly pour into its depth.
Today, an estimated 270 thousand tons of plastic floats at the surface of the world’s oceans. According to UNEP, it is estimated that only 15% of ocean plastics float, another 15% hang neutrally buoyant in the water column, and 70% sink right down to the seafloor. As these plastics break down in the water into micro-particles, they leek myriads of chemical additives into the water, from fire-retardants to biocides, which inevitably contaminate marine life and accumulate into the food chain, finishing their gruesome journey in our dinner plates as we enjoy freshly-caught wild fish.
Hundreds of environmental organizations are constantly fighting this environmental disaster, organizing diving and beach cleanups, deploying surface collectors, and advocating innovative ways to prevent the plastics from reaching the sea. According to IUCN’s expert on marine plastics, Joao Sousa, only circular economy initiatives will truly have the wide scale effect that is needed to reverse this madness. A product of oil, plastics can be melted down and made into resources again, re-entering the economic cycle rather than vanishing beneath the surface of a dying ocean. When these technologies gain scale and demonstrate economic viability, nobody will throw plastic away carelessly anymore, and global-scale harvesting will begin.
Today, IUCN works to develop a broad stakeholder platform, involving plastic producers and scientific institutions to support the industry in developing best practices, while simultaneously educating customers and funding research, establishing global standards for plastic production and waste management.
Perhaps the solution lies in establishing the connection between our unsustainable use of plastics and the effects it is having on our health, realizing that the micro-beads of plastic used in cosmetic products for instance, make a short journey straight to our diner plates. Perhaps establishing direct links between ocean plastics and economic impacts will help change our behaviors, given for instance the estimated annual 13 billion dollar damage caused by plastics to marine ecosystem services.
The global threat posed by ocean plastics raises the questions about our values as a species. We are acting as pure consumers of the planet’s resources, but can we modify our behavior to become environmental stewards? Can social sciences and marketing, which have long served the openly assumed goal of selling us more stuff, today help change our perspectives, values and culture, to care ever so slightly about greater-than-self issues? Economic incentives will play a major role in changing our behaviors, but a change of moral values can have the long-term positive effect of making our default choices responsible. How will future generations judge our civilization, assuming the sum of our actions doesn’t make this planet permanently inhabitable for them?
On World Ocean Day 2015, the international community is increasingly alerted to the global environmental challenges we face, which include plastic pollution alongside climate changes, biodiversity loss and overfishing. As the COP21 international discussions approach, will our leaders realize the crucial role that our oceans play in maintaining our societies and well-being?
To end on a humorous note this grave and overwhelming resource management problem blog-post, a quote from American humorist George Carlin:
“Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?” –Plastic.”
[Originally published in IUCN’s August 2015 Marine Newsletter as editorial]