More plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050?

Gleaming red, yellow, green: the colorful swarm dances gracefully through the underwater world – past corals, turtles and snorkeling tourists. But these are no fish swimming in front of the tourists’ cameras here in the Indian Ocean. They are colorful shreds of plastic.

The trash-covered coasts off Bali show just how disastrous the plastic problem has already become. Depending on the weather and current, hundreds of bottles, pieces of packaging, and bags slosh onto the beaches of the vacation island. While the Balinese fear that tourists will stay away, the plastic often has fatal consequences for marine life. They confuse plastic with food – and once swallowed, it clogs up their digestive system and causes them to die in agony. Researchers just recently found a washed-up whale on Thailand’s coast – with 80 plastic bags in its stomach. Nevertheless, more and more plastic is finding its way into the oceans every year. There are already 140 million metric tons of plastic bobbing up and down at sea. How does it get there? And what can be done about it? A search for clues.

Polluted rivers

According to a study by the open access scientific journal Nature Communications, 67 percent of the plastic drifting in the ocean comes from just 20 rivers, most of them in Asia. The Ganges, for example, is one of the top polluters. Instead of fish and other river-dwelling animals, India’s sacred river is full of PET bottles, shopping bags and plastic foam.

However, it is also yoghurt cups from Germany and shampoo bottles from Denmark that reach the sea via Asia’s rivers. In recent times, the EU has exported half of its domestic waste to foreign countries. China has accepted the lion’s share of it so far. There, the plastic has been sorted and then recycled or incinerated. But, in the meantime, China has put a halt to such imports.  

For "The Ocean Cleanup" project kilometers of floating tubes are supposed to form a kind of artificial coastline in the sea. Nets hang four meters deep into the water from the barrier to filter garbage.

Too little recycling

Some 25 million tons of plastic accumulate in Europe every year – 30 percent of which is recycled. “If we don't change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050,” warns Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission. The Commission has declared a war on waste. One goal is to make recycling more profitable in Europe, as well. Uniform standards and similar source materials are meant to boost the quality of EU recycling.

The EU also wants to introduce new regulations regarding the disposal of ship-generated waste in ports. For example, in the future, ships will have to declare the quantity and type of waste they have on board before entering ports. Only then will they be able to hand it over to special collection points. “The sea cannot be allowed to become a plastic dump,” says Ralf Nagel, CEO of the German Shipowners’ Association (VDR). “Waste has been properly sorted on board for a long time. The new regulation aims to ensure that plastic and other environmentally hazardous waste is also disposed of properly on land.”

Shipping has been setting a good example for decades. As early as 1973, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, or MARPOL for short. The environmental regulations govern, for example, how ships deal with oil, harmful liquid substances, ship waste water and garbage. The regulations have been continuously developed over time. “Shipping is a pioneer in terms of marine conservation,” says Nagel. “Now the ports must follow suit to ensure the eco-friendly disposal of waste.”

The principle of “no garbage into the sea” has long been a daily reality at Hapag-Lloyd. “We have very high environmental standards throughout the group – and not only when it comes to waste,” says Wolfram Guntermann, Director of Environmental Management at Hapag-Lloyd. “On board, every single plastic bag and every piece of food packaging is collected, sorted and then handed over to the respective ports for eco-friendly disposal at the local level.” However, since the biggest sources of ocean-polluting plastic come from the land side, why Hapag-Lloyd is backing projects to inform the public about the dangers of plastic waste. For example, in 2017, the company donated €50,000 to support OceanCare, an organization dedicated to protecting marine animals and oceans.

Tiny but toxic

But even if garbage collection is done with the greatest care, it is still powerless against microplastics. The tiny plastic particles that are supposed to enhance the washing effect are hidden in detergents and cosmetics. Particles with diameters of less than five millimeters cannot be filtered out by sewage treatment plants, so they end up making it into bodies of water. Once there, they also become a danger to humans: Fish swallow the particles – and then they end up in our food chain, too. People are practically eating their own garbage. It has yet to be determined just how this impacts our health.

For this reason, Brussels is toying with the idea of banning the purposeful addition of particles. Sweden is already one step ahead: There, the sale of cosmetics with microplastics was prohibited as of July 1.  

Boyan Slat, founder of “The Ocean Cleanup” project

Damming the flood of plastic

The measures are designed to prevent even more plastic from getting into the sea. But what about the waste that is already in the sea? With his “The Ocean Cleanup” project, 23-year-old Dutchman Boyan Slat is using ocean currents to collect the garbage circling in so-called trash vortexes. Kilometers of floating tubes are supposed to form a kind of artificial coastline in the sea. Nets hang four meters deep into the water from the barrier, which is fittingly made of plastic. The idea: The ocean current pushes fish and other sea creatures under the nets. What remains is plastic of all types and sizes – from fishing nets to the smallest microparticles. Ships then collect the plastic and bring it ashore, where it is processed into pellets. “The stakes are high, and the world is hoping the best for us,” says Slat. In May, the team successfully tested a 120-meter-long tube in San Francisco Bay. The gigantic water filter will later be set up in the waste vortex known as the Great Pacific garbage patch . “We humans have created the plastic problem,” Slat adds. “So we should be able to resolve it, too.”

Alongside climate change, marine pollution is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. This calls for the ingenuity of people like Boyan Slat. And it calls for all of us to be more committed to reducing plastic waste, such as by using reusable packaging – or, even better, by avoiding packaging waste altogether.  

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