On a calm, sunny day of summer 2010, I was diving in one of the most beautiful marine protected areas of the Mediterranean, the Cabrera National Park in Spain. After an hour of peacefully gliding along the lush seascapes teaming with massive groupers in crystal clear waters, it was time to ascend to the safety stop. As I hovered at five metres below the surface, I was slowly surrounded by tiny particles brought in by the current. Within seconds, a soup of plastic had clouded the entire site, and I surfaced, appalled by the contrast of what I had witnessed. The sea knows no boundaries, and nor do the revolting pollutions that we constantly pour into its depths. Today, an estimated 270 thousand tons of plastic floats at the surface of the world’s oceans. According to UNEP, it is estimated that only 15 percent of ocean plastics float, another 15 percent hang neutrally buoyant in the water column, and 70 percent sinks right down to the seafloor. As these plastics break down in the water into microparticles, they leek myriad chemical additives into the water, from fire-retardants to biocides, which inevitably contaminate marine life and accumulate in the food chain, finishing their gruesome journey on our dinner plates as we enjoy freshlycaught wild fish.
FROM CONSUMERS TO STEWARDS
The global threat posed by ocean plastics raises the questions about our values as a species. We are acting as pure consumers of the planet’s resources, but can we modify our behaviour to become environmental stewards? Can social sciences and marketing, which have long served the openly assumed goal of selling us more stuff, today help change our perspectives, values and culture, to care ever so slightly about greaterthan-self issues? Economic incentives will play a major role in changing our behaviours, but a change of moral values can have the long-term positive effect of making our default choices responsible. How will future generations judge our civilisation, assuming the sum of our actions doesn’t make this planet permanently inhabitable for them? Perhaps the solution lies in establishing the connection between our unsustainable use of plastics and the effects it is having on our health, realising that the micro-beads of plastic used in cosmetic products for instance, make a short journey straight to our dinner plates. Perhaps establishing direct links between ocean plastics and economic impacts will help change our behaviours, given for instance the estimated annual 13 billion dollar damage caused by plastics to marine ecosystem services.
PLASTICS AS RESOURCE NOT WASTE?
Hundreds of environmental organisations are constantly fighting this environmental disaster, organising diving and beach cleanups, deploying surface collectors, and advocating innovative ways to prevent the plastics from reaching the sea. According to IUCN’s expert on marine plastics, Joao Sousa, only circular economy initiatives will truly have the wide scale effect that is needed to reverse this madness. A product of oil, plastics can be melted down and made into resources again, re-entering the economic cycle rather than vanishing beneath the surface of a dying ocean. When these technologies gain scale and demonstrate economic viability, nobody will throw plastic away carelessly anymore, and globalscale harvesting will begin.
OCEANS ON THE AGENDA
To end this grave and overwhelming problem with a quote from American humorist George Carlin:
“Could be the only reason the Earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could it be that the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, ‘Why are we here?’ is ‘Plastic.’?” SDOP
Plastic litters the beaches of the Maldives, as it does coasts around the world, even in places far from human habitation Image © Pierre-Yves Cousteau