The Ocean's Deadliest Predator: Why We Need To Stop Plastic Pollution
Words by Colin Daniels. Designed by Daniel Goh
Words by Colin Daniels. Designed by Daniel Goh
The world’s oceans are under unprecedented threat from a deadly predator.
Strong and indestructible, with the ability to harm anything in its path, this beast has become one of the greatest risks to our oceans today.
The culprit? Plastic.
Eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into oceans around the world every year, impacting not only marine life and its delicate ecosystems, but having wider implications on our health and economies globally.
The attributes that have made plastic so ubiquitous in society — its strength and durability — are the very reasons it has become a major environmental issue, a seemingly unstoppable problem that’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Nearly half of all plastic ever manufactured has been made since 2000 to meet demand for the world’s ever-growing consumerist tendencies.
At current rates, it’s predicted that there will be ten times more plastic in our oceans by 2020, and more plastic than fish by 2050.
If these shocking statistics aren’t enough of a wake-up call, meet...
Weighing 200kg, towering four metres high and made from 2,400 recycled plastic bottles, The Beast is a representation of Australia’s fast-growing plastic problem.
It recently made an appearance at both Sydney's Circular Quay and the Australian National Maritime Museum, where it had a monster impact on over 17,000 people who visited the installation, before being broken down and recycled with zero waste to landfill.
Created by HP Australia, The Beast is an illustration of the 8.3 million plastic bottles the technology giant has diverted from oceans since last year to use in manufacturing new HP cartridges.
The #breakdownthebeast campaign is just one of the initiatives in a global effort — and growing movement — to combat this destructive situation.
Part of finding a solution also lies in understanding how plastic gets there in the first place.
Plastic Pollution: A Snapshot
Through ongoing scientific research around the globe and action by communities and companies like HP, we have a clearer picture than ever of the scale of plastic in oceans, as well as the rates at which the issue is predicted to grow.
The HP Australia Environmental Sustainability Study 2018 also gives insight into changing attitudes towards sustainability and the gaps that we can help with as individuals.
While some ocean plastic comes from fishing equipment, industrial incidents or illegal dumping, around 80 per cent is directly from land. That includes:
- Litter from beaches and streets, which can enter the ocean via drains and rivers.
- Plastic blown away from landfills or during transportation for processing.
- Microplastics from items in the home, such as microbeads from beauty products, which aren’t detected at water plants.
Finding themselves in increasingly changing habitats, the immediate danger to sea creatures is getting tangled in discarded plastic, such as bags and packaging.
That plastic can take hundreds of years to fully decompose and is often broken down by into microplastics, posing even greater risks.
Wildlife can mistake microplastics for food and face starvation as their stomachs become blocked with impossible-to-digest materials. Toxins from plastics, meanwhile, can affect hormones and cause infertility.
Nowhere are these dangers more apparent than at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where sea turtles monitored by scientists from The Ocean Cleanup were found to have up to 74 per cent of their diets composed of ocean plastics.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches an area bigger than New South Wales, with 1.8 trillion plastic pieces floating between Hawaii and California.
It’s just one of five massive patches of accumulated plastic scientists have identified in oceans that are symbolic of the epidemic.
Beyond these implications, studies are being conducted into the wider challenges presented by this mass-scale pollution and finding that the dangers aren’t just restricted to ocean wildlife.
We’re now seeing emerging evidence pointing to how this could be affecting humans, with a recent study finding microplastics in the human gut for the first time.
We still don’t know the health implications, if any, of humans consuming microplastics, but it is possible for them to be passed on through the food chain as marine life becomes prey, via the process of bioaccumulation.
Adding to the pressures, a United Nations investigation found the environmental damage caused by plastic in marine ecosystems represents $US13 billion, including the cost of cleanups and losses incurred by fisheries.
What The Experts Say
Richard Leck is Head of Oceans at the WWF and leads the foundation’s work to protect marine environments around Australia.
His team works from the Coral Triangle north of Australia, east to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, west to the Kimberley and all the way south to Antarctica.
Leck has seen first hand the growing problem of plastic pollution and is passionate about protecting our oceans.
We asked him about this worldwide issue and what can be done to reverse its effects.
What trends are scientists seeing around plastic in the ocean?
It’s been really interesting in the last few years to see how the issue of plastic pollution has become such a global concern.
I think the reasons why that has happened is because suddenly scientists from all over the world are starting to put together the impacts they are seeing.
It’s not just big plastic outflows from major metropolises like Jakarta or Manila, we’re starting to see those plastics being picked up in remote areas we think of as pristine, places like Lord Howe Island just off the Australian coast.
How does plastic pollution compare to other environmental threats?
It’s very difficult to say one threat is more significant than the other — clearly for oceans and ecosystems more broadly, climate change is the number one issue. It hasn't been until recently that we've really understood the scale of the threat of plastic pollution.
It's been a discovery of those big oceanic garbage patches, where currents cause plastics to conglomerate for thousands of square kilometers. I think as scientists have understood that, we've really understood the scale.
In terms of its significance, the other factor with plastic pollution is that it can impact species from the top of the food chain all the way down to the bottom. So the big mammals — whales, dolphins — can consume vast numbers of plastics, but even sardines and pilchards will consume plastics. It's that insidious threat that has really raised so much concern.
Which marine life is most at risk from plastic pollution?
The scary prospect is microplastics. There's some obvious and heart-wrenching images that we see of those big, charismatic animals that we know and love.
Images of whales that have swallowed — no exaggeration — tonnes of plastics, turtles that can no longer get under water because there’s so much plastic in their stomach making them too buoyant, and even seabirds that aren't swimming in the ocean but mistake plastic for their food and often pass that onto their chicks.
More and more we're starting to get concerned about the issue of microplastics, that are broken down into very small particles that get into the food chain and, potentially, into the seafood that we all love to consume.
Plastic pollutions in the ocean may not only impact oceanic creatures, but may also have a significant impact on us as well. It’s an area with a lot more research needed.
What challenges do the science — and wider — community face to tackle the problem?
Plastic has become an issue that a lot of decision makers and scientists have taken a huge amount of interest in in recent years. People feel they can personally make a difference in combating the problem, but it's also an area that's a really interesting research problem for a lot of scientists because we’re still discovering what the impacts are.
It does have cross-over concerns into other research. A lot of species we’re talking about suffer from other threats as well. Threatened species like turtles get trapped in fishing gear and are illegally hunted and traded, so for them to have this additional threat on top of them is really serious.
Some of those are fish species as well. Many of the world's fisheries are in dire straits and have been overfished — if they are also consuming a significant amount of plastic, that's a major concern for the ongoing viability of fisheries too.
Unfortunately, it's not a rosy picture but the ocean has no boundaries, so the threats to oceanic species generally have no boundaries either. The influx of plastics into the ocean just compounds the other threats that ocean wildlife faces.
What one change would help the problem most?
It's incredibly valuable for individuals to reduce their plastic use, reuse and recycle. My kids love taking recyclable products to the container deposit scheme because they earn their pocket money! Stuff like that is fantastic, but it's really going to rely on bold leadership from governments and big business to make the changes that are needed.
The phase out of unnecessary single-use plastic should be a massive step forward to solving this problem, that would lead to a whole bunch of other solutions around the products that businesses use. If Australia, for example, was to not use plastic straws, for us to not be able to drink a coffee for 30 seconds and throw the cup in the bin, I think that would be an incredible achievement and would flow through to how society operates as a whole.
Some leading companies have committed to circular economy principles, which means they commit to recycling and reusing the waste and packaging that they produce, but at the moment the countries and businesses doing that are very much in the minority. I think what the global community has done well today is document the problem, what the global community hasn't done well is get real action on the ground in terms of global solutions.
Change is always controversial. Banning single-use plastics is the first step in a long road, and we’ve obviously had teething problems, but I think in coming years we’ll work through all the packaging at supermarkets and other retailers.
Change Starts With You
How many pieces of plastic do you come into contact with each day?
The reality is that plastic is so pervasive in modern-day life it’s impossible to escape. Some of the most common everyday items that end up in oceans include plastic bottles, cigarette butts, food packaging and plastic bags.
Due to the scale of the issue, it’s clear we need global collaboration to tackle the existing problem and restrict it from growing any worse.
Here’s what you can do today to help:
Choose alternatives to single-use plastic
Banning or restricting single-use plastics is becoming a reality in many countries and is perhaps the most achievable yet impactful step an individual can take to do their part. Refraining from using items like cotton swabs, plastic cutlery and straws that end up in landfills and waterways is also a good place to start.
Plastic alternatives include:
- Reusable coffee cups, water bottles and food containers
- Bamboo or stainless steel straws
- Canvas bags
- Natural cosmetics without microbeads
Improve your recycling routine
It’s estimated that only 9 per cent of plastic ever produced has been recycled. Knowing what can and can’t be recycled is key to making your efforts worthwhile. Cleaning and sorting processes are getting more sophisticated, but sending unsuitable items to the recycling plant can cause contamination and equipment blockages, impacting the overall success of these initiatives. Check products for the Australian Recycling Label for instructions and remember that the following items shouldn’t be put into household recycling:
- Plastic bags
- Soft plastics like cling wrap
- Food (consider a compost bin)
- Glassware and oven-proof glass
- Printer cartridges (use a special service like Cartridges 4 Planet Ark)
If you’re unsure whether you can recycle something, check with your local council or use Recycling Near You to find the correct methods.
Make smarter purchases
According to HP’s Australia Environmental Sustainability Study 2018, in partnership with Planet Ark, 80 per cent of Australian consumers believe brands should have sustainable practices, while 71 per cent are willing to pay more for sustainably produced products. Purchasing from companies that invest in the environment like HP can help reduce your footprint on the planet, without compromising on quality.
Other ways to help:
- Avoid products with excess plastic packaging.
- Buy in bulk to cut down on packaging.
- Reuse items, for example swapping clothes with friends.
- Help with local cleanups to reduce plastic in the environment.
Individuals can make a cumulative difference.
If everyone in Australia halved the number of single-use plastic bags they use in a year, that would result in almost 2 billion fewer being used.
That’s much less plastic at risk of ending up in our oceans and other important ecosystems — remember the issue isn’t just restricted to marine life.
Getting Business On Board
The stark truth is that recycling alone won’t solve the problem of plastic in our oceans and neither will relying on individual action — we need businesses on board too.
Cutting down on plastic use in your business can not only help the environment, but boost morale, give a competitive edge and even drive efficiencies and cost reductions.
Most businesses have at least a couple of green measures in place already, such as recycling printer cartridges.
Here are a couple more ways business owners and employees can make changes, in addition to individual action:
- Assess your chemical waste policies and usage of industrial cleaning products.
- Reuse, reuse, reuse — can packaging have another use around the office, such as storage? Can equipment life cycles be extended?
- Purchase FSC certified paper, which means the product has come from a forest and supply chain that is managed responsibly.
Ramp up recycling
- Arrange for mobile phones, computers and other tech to be collected and recycled.
- Send back used coffee pods via special collections like TerraCycle.
- Recycle HP printer cartridges via Cartridges 4 Planet Ark. If your business uses more than three HP printer cartridges per month, you may be eligible for a recycling box with free collection.
- Ask regular suppliers to cut packaging and choose sustainable partners.
- Encourage staff to get involved in changes and cleanups — offer incentives.
- Collaborate with other businesses and sustainability specialists like Close The Loop to pool expertise.
- Get a waste assessment to optimise recycling — some states in Australia offer business grants to help.
- Introduce the same individual plastic alternatives we recommended above.
How HP Is Leading The Charge
Over the last 75 years, HP has been an industry leader in reducing its impact on the environment and what’s known as closed-loop recycling.
Products returned via HP Planet Partners are combined with other post-consumer materials to create new Original HP cartridges.
From launching its first recycling program in 1987 to developing innovative energy-efficient technology today, HP continues its commitment to environmental responsibility.
HP recently joined NextWave, a group developing a global supply chain for ocean-bound plastics, bringing together leading companies of the world in an open-source initiative.
To find out more about HP’s commitment to sustainability click here.