Ocean plastic set to treble in the next ten years

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 21 March 2018

A new report suggest the world needs a ‘Mission to Planet Ocean” approach to change the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude when it comes to what’s happening below the waves.

Plastic Bag underwater
© Rich Carey / Shutterstock

We know less about the bottom of the sea than the moon or Mars, but nothing lives on the moon or Mars, but things live in our ocean and they’re vitally important to us.

Professor Ed Hill,
Executive director of the National Oceanography Centre

Among the findings of the Foresight Future of the Sea Report for the UK Government was a warning that plastic in the ocean could treble in a decade unless there is serious action to curb litter getting into our seas.

Plastic is one of a number of environmental issues facing the world’s seas, along with rising sea levels and warming oceans, and metal and chemical pollution, says the report.

MCS Beachwatch surveys found an in increase in litter levels of 135% since 1994, with plastic pollution on beaches increasing by a staggering 180%.

But the report also suggested that there are opportunities for the UK to cash in on the global “ocean economy” - which is set to double to $3 trillion (£2 trillion) by 2030 - in areas where we are a world leader, such as offshore wind.

The oceans are hugely important to the UK, with 95% of the country’s international trade travelling by sea, the internet carried by subsea cables, and oceans storing carbon dioxide and heat and producing oxygen and food.

The report warned plastic litter on coasts can increase the risk of dangerous bacteria in the water, such as E.coli and the authors said that plastic will leave a physical presence, accumulating on coasts or in particular areas of ocean.

It comes days after a Daily Mail investigation revealed how microplastics are contaminating the food we eat and the air we breathe. Fish fillet samples from eight shops showed worrying levels of the tiny particles.

Professor Ed Hill, executive director of the National Oceanography Centre, and one of the report authors said it was time to change the attitude of what goes on below the surface as “out of sight, out of mind” and have more of a “Mission to Planet Ocean” approach.

He said: “When people get to see what is in the ocean, and the Blue Planet series and so on have helped people to visualise it, and then I think their reaction is twofold, one is complete wonder at what is there, and in other cases complete horror at what we’re potentially doing to it.

“It’s this sense of the unexplored world on our own planet, but also it’s important to us, we know less about the bottom of the sea than the moon or Mars, but nothing lives on the moon or Mars, but things live in our ocean and they’re vitally important to us.”

The oceans could provide new medicines, minerals and energy, he said.

The report also suggested international collaboration and long-term planning was needed to protect the environment and enable the UK to make the most of the maritime economy.

Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser for DEFRA said work is beginning on the impacts of plastic in the ocean, as experts are not sure what threats it poses.

But the toxic effects when they break down and end up inside marine organisms are not clear, he said, and efforts to reduce plastic pollution should focus on preventing it entering the sea, introducing new biodegradable plastics and public awareness campaigns about marine protection.

Emma Cunningham, MCS Senior Pollution Campaigns Officer says the level of plastics is rising and most of it comes from items used once and discarded: “The more we use in  our everyday lives, the more that ends up on our beaches. From coffee cups, lids, stirrers, plastic  straws and cutlery, you’ll find them all on our beaches and in the sea. We cannot afford to wait any longer, but there is still time to reduce levels of plastic by entering our oceans!

“Charging for plastic bags worked to change behaviour and we need to do the same with single use plastic.    Ideally we would like to see a levy on all single use items such as plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery or for them to be replaced with reusable or fully compostable alternatives. It’s also vital that producers take an active role in the design and recyclability of packaging.”

Actions you can take

  1. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019
  2. Help us stop the plastic tide

Did you know?…

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be 6 times the size of the UK

Plastic has been found in the stomachs of almost all marine species including fish, birds, whales, dolphins, seals and turtles