Plas­tics in the Oceans

Montreal Times - - Front Page - By: Deb­o­rah Rankin / mtl­times.ca

MON­TREAL - Con­cor­dia Univer­sity will be host­ing a Fu­ture Earth Sec­re­tariat start­ing in the fall of 2017. The Mon­treal-based re­search con­sor­tium will be look­ing to find so­lu­tions to global en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges ac­cord­ing to Peter Stoett, di­rec­tor of Con­cor­dia Univer­sity's Loy­ola Sus­tain­abil­ity Re­search Cen­tre. "Mon­treal is a ma­jor heat is­land with a big car­bon foot­print," he says. "Re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions in the city is vi­tal."

Stoett says cli­mate change must be ad­dressed in con­junc­tion with other press­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns like ocean sus­tain­abil­ity. "Hu­man sur­vival and the life of the oceans are in­trin­si­cally bound on this blue planet." By now most of us have heard that cli­mate change re­sults in ris­ing sea lev­els with detri­men­tal ef­fects on a va­ri­ety of an­i­mal species and hu­man be­ings, es­pe­cially in coastal re­gions. How­ever, most of us haven't thought a whole lot about pol­lu­tion in re­la­tion to the qual­ity of life in the oceans.

“Things have to change”

Stoett re­cently dis­cussed the ill ef­fects of "plas­tic pol­lu­tion" on the oceans' ecosys­tems at a pre­sen­ta­tion on ocean sus­tain­abil­ity at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity spon­sored by Plas­tic Oceans Foun­da­tion Canada. The talk fol­lowed a screen­ing of the award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary A Plas­tic Ocean at the Sir Ge­orge Wil­liams Alumni Au­di­to­rium in the Hall Build­ing. Plas­tic Oceans Canada is part of a global net­work of not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions hop­ing to change the way we deal with plas­tic waste at a lo­cal and global level. Daniel Green, Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Canada and Adam Taschereau co-founder of bulk-buy­ing group Nous Rire also spoke at the public meet­ing at the down­town cam­pus.

"We have a plas­tic cri­sis. We are dis­cov­er­ing un­told lev­els of plas­tic in the ocean," Stoett said. There is al­ready an ocean cri­sis with over­fish­ing, acid­i­fi­ca­tion, and sea level rise. "Car­bon re­cy­cling of the oceans is ex­tremely im­por­tant. Marine bio­di­ver­sity is ex­tremely im­por­tant. We need a global frame­work like the Paris Ac­cord. There's a big en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice is­sue here."

A Plas­tic Ocean high­lights the har­row­ing ef­fects of non-dis­pos­able plas­tic on marine life. In one seg­ment of the film, Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist and film­maker Craig Lee­son watches as re­search sci­en­tist Dr. Jen­nifer Lavers of the In­sti­tute of Marine and An­tar­tic Stud­ies re­moves 234 pieces of hard plas­tic from the di­ges­tive tract of just one se­abird chick that like many oth­ers of its kind has choked or starved to death by in­gest­ing plas­tic sea de­bris. (The record for the species is 276 pieces for one bird while a stag­ger­ing 85-90% of seabirds have in­gested plas­tic as well as count­less fish tur­tles and other wildlife.) Seabirds are among the most heav­ily con­tam­i­nated species and this is a daily rit­ual for the eco­tox­i­col­o­gist from the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia, Aus­tralia: picking up scores of dead seabirds that have washed up on the beach at Lord Howe Is­land, a World Her­itage Site, be­fore ex­am­in­ing their stom­ach con­tents for tox­ins.

The film makes an im­pas­sioned plea for peo­ple to think about al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic bot­tles and wrap­pings as it fol­lows fel­low ex­plor­ers Lee­son and world record-break­ing free­d­iver and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Tanya Streeter as they travel to coastal re­gions in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries rav­aged by plas­tic pol­lu­tion then back to their home-base in Austin, Texas where Lee­son sur­veys trendy eater­ies and cafés to see if any of­fer other op­tions be­sides plas­tic pack­ag­ing (most don't).

Streeter says, "If the plas­tic is in a dol­phin's food chain then it's also in our food chain." The prob­lem is that poor coun­tries with in­ad­e­quate waste man­age­ment often use plas­tic ex­ten­sively be­cause it is cheap but ev­ery year 8 mil­lion tons of plas­tic are dumped into the sea. When smaller "mi­croplas­tics" are in­gested by an­i­mals, the tox­ins re­leased are stored in their tis­sues and ac­cu­mu­late up the food chain end­ing up on our din­ner ta­bles. This bodes ill for nearly one-fifth of the world's pop­u­la­tion that re­lies on the sea for its pri­mary source of pro­tein as con­tam­i­nated seafood can cause many health prob­lems.

"Plas­tic is won­der­ful be­cause it is durable and plas­tic is ter­ri­ble be­cause it is durable," Lee­son says wax­ing philo­sophic at this para­dox of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. The sta­tis­tics are mind-bog­gling: More than 300 mil­lion tons of plas­tic are pro­duced each year but only a frac­tion is re­cy­cled. In un­der­priv­i­leged coun­tries, en­tire com­mu­ni­ties are built on land­fills. Lee­son in­ter­views farm­ers who are grow­ing sweet pota­toes, corn, and sugar cane in the midst of a plas­tic dump site. So what is the an­swer?

Peter Thom­son OF, a Fi­jian diplo­mat who is Pres­i­dent of the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly says, "As a Pa­cific Is­lan­der I know the Pa­cific is in deep trou­ble. Ev­ery minute of ev­ery day the equiv­a­lent of a large garbage truck is backing up and dump­ing plas­tic into the ocean." He says we have to look at our­selves and ask, "Do we re­ally de­serve this beau­ti­ful ocean given to us?" He cites pro­jec­tions that by 2050 there will be al­most as much plas­tic in the sea as fish by weight. "Sin­gle-use plas­tic has got to be on its way out," he says.

Lee­son tells us that he loves the ocean, it is where he feels most spiritual. "We have to make our lives bet­ter for our chil­dren's chil­dren. Change is pos­si­ble. It starts with us." How­ever, Streeter says that she wor­ries as an "older Mum" who had her chil­dren later in life that plas­tic pol­lu­tion might be af­fect­ing fer­til­ity rates in women.

Daniel Green said that plas­tic pol­lu­tion doesn't only af­fect the oceans but also fresh-wa­ter ecosys­tems like the St. Lawrence River. He drew at­ten­tion to the high con­cen­tra­tions of mi­croplas­tic par­ti­cles in the St. Lawrence River sed­i­ment. "It would be in­ter­est­ing to look at the stom­ach of a stur­geon," he said. "They're bot­tom-feed­ers." Green spec­u­lated that pol­lu­tion hot spots like the one in front of Que­bec's for­mer nu­clear power plant Gen­tilly-2 might even con­tain ra­dioac­tive mi­crobeads. "Clearly an in­ves­ti­ga­tion needs to be done."

Taschereau fo­cused on the in­di­vid­ual's role in mak­ing sus­tain­able choices. He said that when we look at our in­di­vid­ual lives we have to ask our­selves, "What can I do about it?" He re­peated the mantra of the 3 R's as the path out of pol­lut­ing life­styles: re­use, re­cy­cle and re­duce while en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery­one to com­post food waste too. He said that if we come back to our true na­ture the mar­ket will fol­low, re­mind­ing his lis­ten­ers that we need to look deeper and see our­selves as con­nected to na­ture and ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in na­ture. "Let's change our life­styles one step at a time. If we gather our strengths and merge into a zero waste life­style things can change glob­ally."

Dr. Peter Stoett

Adam Taschereau

Adam Taschereau

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