Plastic in our ocean

Plastic pollution is a global crisis and is the most widespread problem affecting the marine environment, with about 40% of the world’s ocean surfaces covered in plastic. Issues around environmental sustainability and protection has shown to be a sensitive topic and it has been shown that pro-environmental behaviour can both foster and negatively impact individuals well-being, as it is often perceived as “…difficult, aggravating, and potentially threatening one‘s quality of life”.

Every year, billions of pounds of more plastic end up in the world’s oceans with over 300 million tons of plastic produced for use in a wide variety of applications. Unlike some other kinds of waste, plastic does not decompose, which means they can stick around indefinitely. There is always a chance that the plastic we throw away (indiscriminately) could make it into the sea. Commonly found plastics include cigarette butts, food wrappers, bottles, straws, cups, plates, bottle caps, and single-use bags. Amongst the disturbing impacts of plastic pollution are the threats to human and ocean health. Micro and invisible plastics have been identified in tap water, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and salt. Several chemicals used in the production of plastic materials are known to be carcinogenic and to interfere with the body’s endocrine system, causing developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders in both humans and wildlife.

We need nature and not even vice versa, and if we fail to realize this on time, mother nature will spew us out. I agree with Pathisa Nyathi, who said, “Hell hath no fury than an environment disturbed. Man and his insatiable greed will be eliminated from the face of the earth to restore environmental peace and equilibrium”. We are part of the world and must care about plastic pollution and its ravaging impacts on us.

My research interest is behavioural ecology of birds, especially seabirds. Birds are important component of the ecosystem because they keep systems in balance. These enigmatic species are biological indicators in predicting weathers and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. They adapt to their environments in intriguing ways, thus act as indicators of the state of the environment. We live on a planet that, in part, depends on the ecological services provided by birds.

The role of seabirds, for example, as potential indicator of marine conditions is widely acknowledged. The status of seabirds reflects the underlying state of important parts of the coastal and oceanic systems of the world. It is hard to imagine that over 95 percent of the earth’s water can be found in the oceans and it is quite hard for us, as terrestrial organisms, to really understand what is going on in the ocean. Yet, we hugely depend on the sea for food, in form of fisheries. This is where seabirds are extremely useful because they live in that environment, so we get a window into the oceanic environment by looking at these birds during their terrestrial phase. So, they form a foundation for ecological health across oceans and islands. As for the great challenges that we are facing today, such as climate change and overfishing, seabirds give us important clues to the health of the marine resources on which we depend as humans.Unfortunately, we are losing these amazing species to plastic pollution at alarming rate.

Marine species are always on the frontline as they are directly exposed through ingestion, suffocation and entanglement. Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fishes and turtles, mistake plastic waste for prey, and consequently die of starvation as their stomachs are filled with plastic debris. It has been projected that plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050. When marine organisms ingest plastic debris, these contaminants enter their digestive systems, and overtime accumulate in the food web. The transfer of contaminants between marine species and humans through consumption of seafood has been identified as a health hazard.

Having stated all these, we need to understand that we are at the eleventh hour and urgent action must be taken to address the looming global plastic pollution epidemic. There is an urgent need to explore the use of existing legally binding international agreements to address marine plastic pollution. Recycling and reuse of plastic products, and support for research and innovation to develop new products to replace single-use plastics are also necessary to prevent and reduce plastic pollution.

Global concern and public awareness regarding the impact of plastic on the marine environment are currently increasing in developed countries but much need to be done in developing countries. Governments, research institutions and industries also need to work collaboratively to redesign products, and rethink their usage and disposal, in order to reduce microplastics waste from pellets, synthetic textiles and tyres. As individuals, it is also important to embrace eco-friendly ethics by reducing plastic use. We must commit to changing our habits by reducing the use of disposable and single-use plastic items. We can also participate in clean-up programmes to pick up marine litter around us. Together, we can create a healthy and sustainable planet.

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