Fish and plastic pollution in ocean

Plastic pollution in oceans to treble in a decade, warns government report

Image credit: Dreamstime

According to the Future of the Sea report, commissioned by the UK government, the amount of plastic waste ending up in the ocean is set to triple within 10 years unless action is taken to tackle the problem.

According to the report, there are many opportunities for the UK to benefit from the growing ‘ocean economy’, which is expected to double to £2t by 2030, particularly in areas such as offshore wind. Aside from being a source of food, oxygen and useful materials, 95 per cent of the UK’s international trade relies on sea transport, and subsea cables make rapid international data transfer a reality.

However, the ocean also faces many threats, including plastic waste, rising sea levels and warming oceans, threats to marine biodiversity, and metal and chemical pollution.

“We anticipate many new opportunities for the UK to benefit economically from the sea and to show leadership on the global stage. We are well placed to succeed [...] however business as usual is not an option if the UK wants to fully capitalise on these opportunities, and be a successful marine and maritime nation in the future,” the report warned.

The report lists four priorities: coordination of academia, government, public and industry in developing policy for the future of the sea, ensuring a considerate long-term approach to decision making, collaborating internationally, and fixing our lack of understanding of the sea (known as ‘sea blindness’); the surfaces of the Moon and Mars have been more thoroughly mapped than the seafloor.

It is believed that artificial intelligence and automated technology – such as drones and unmanned submarines likes Boaty McBoatface – could play a major role in expanding our knowledge of the oceans, monitoring their state, and ensuring that they are protected.

According to the report, we do not yet fully understand the impact of plastic waste in the ocean, although we can expect the volume of this waste to triple between 2015 and 2025 unless interventions are made. Plastic waste carried by ocean currents often accumulates on coasts or certain areas in the oceans. As this waste breaks down, it can be ingested by marine life; the impact on marine life is not yet well understood.

“Even in absence of research, there is a precautionary principle to take here, which is we should minimise the amount of plastic – both macro-plastic and micro-plastic – going into the marine environment, in order to make sure that if there are toxic effects, those are being dealt with,” said Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser to the department for environment, food and rural affairs.

The report recommends reducing plastic pollution, primarily by preventing it from entering the sea in the first place. This could involve introducing biodegradable plastics and public awareness campaigns about marine protection.

“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,” said Professor Ed Hill, executive director of the National Oceanography Centre.

Prime Minister Theresa May, a fan of the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet’ series, has led a government pledge to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042; this will involve abolishing carrier bags, food packaging and plastic straws. Environmental groups have welcomed the government’s commitment, but pushed for greater urgency. May reportedly gifted Chinese President Xi Jinping with a boxset of ‘Blue Planet 2, in order to encourage him to do more to tackle the issue of plastic waste in China.

In December 2017, nearly 200 countries supported a UN resolution aiming to completely eliminate plastic waste in the oceans.

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