In recent years, there has been an effort to avoid plastic straws to save turtles, but new research suggests straws are not the major enemy when it comes to ocean plastic. In fact, single-use bottles, food containers, wrappers, and plastic bags are the main offenders.

Scientists analysed global inventories cataloging more than 12 million pieces of litter found in and around oceans, shorelines, rivers, and the seafloor – 8 out of 10 items were made of plastic; and more than 40% of this plastic were related to take-out food and drinks.

“It was shocking to find out that bags, bottles, food containers, and cutlery together with wrappers account for almost half of the human-made objects on a global scale,” said study leader Dr. Carmen Morales of the University of Cadiz, Spain to BBC.  We found them in rivers, on the deep seabed, on shorelines and floating off our coasts”.

Several of the measures to stop plastic pollution are focused on avoiding straws, cotton buds, and drink stirrers. Although these actions are welcomed, the overall recommendation is to focus attention on take-out food as a primary source. This type of plastic is regularly discarded outdoors after being used only for once and should be prioritised.

Three possible strategies for tackling the problem are recommended in the journal for Nature Sustainability:

  • Use more-easily degradable materials in take-our food
  • Introduce regulatory prohibitions on plastic that can be easily avoided, such as bags
  • Consider a refund scheme to encourage shoppers to return take-out products.

The study also highlighted the problem of litter from fishing gear, such as plastic nets and ropes, which were the biggest problem in the open ocean. Dumped and discarded nets and lines can be deadly for marine wildlife.

Plastic pollution in European rivers

A second study by the University of Cadiz looked at litter released into the ocean from rivers in Europe alone.

The numbers were shocking with plastic making up around 80% of this litter. The “winners” were food packaging, bags, and bits of plastic. Turkey produced the most litter (16%), followed by Italy (11%), the UK (8%), Spain (8%) and Greece (7%).

“We need to act from a citizen’s point of view and also from the policy side,” he said the lead researcher Dr. Daniel Gonzales, lay emphasis on those actions are needed to encourage people to reduce their plastic consumption.

The highest concentration of litter was found on coastlines and sea floors near the beaches. Researchers said wind and waves constantly sweep litter to the coasts, where it accumulates on the nearby seafloor. Also, fishing materials, such as nets and ropes, were more substantial only in the open oceans, where they made up about half the total litter.

second study in the same journal spotted the waste arriving at the ocean from more than 40 rivers in Europe and was one of the datasets Gonzales and his colleagues used.

“Mitigation measures cannot mean cleaning up at the river mouth,” said Daniel González-Fernández of the University of Cádiz, who ran the second study. “You have to stop the litter at the source, so the plastic doesn’t even enter the environment in the first place.”

UK waste sent for recycling found dunmped or burned

Back in May, Greenpeace found that plastic waste the UK had sent to Turkey for recycling had in fact been or burned or dumped and left to pollute the ocean. A sad outcome given US and UK citizens produce more plastic waste per person than any other nation.

Today, what is recommended by the researchers, are bans on avoidable takeaway plastic items, such as single-use bags. For products considered essential, they suggest the producers must take more responsibility for the collection and safe disposal of products together with implementing deposit-return schemes.

“This comprehensive study concludes that the best way to confront plastic pollution is for governments to severely restrict single-use plastic packaging,” said Nina Schrank, a plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK. “This seems undeniable. We will never recycle the quantity of waste plastic we’re currently producing.”

What we are seeing in the sea is a symptom of the whole problem; and this problem’s origin and the solution are on land, which is where we will have to act.


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