Marine plastic pollution: a personal perspective
Author: Rebecca Gilling
Moved by what she learnt at the Beyond Plastic Pollution Conference in in Sydney in October, Planet Ark Deputy CEO Rebecca Gilling conducted her own mini-audit of plastic pollution on a recent beach holiday.
An empty, apparently pristine beach in a National Park on the mid-north coast NSW
We arrived late Friday in a storm at the camping ground in a National Park on the NSW mid-north coast. The following morning, I went down for a walk along what at a glance appeared to be a pristine 10km stretch of empty beach. What that storm had deposited on the evening tide, however, was a shock.
Particularly concerning were the party balloons and plastic bottles
On that first morning I collected two armfuls of plastic debris along a 4km stretch of the beach at the low and high tide marks. I decided to channel my despondency into something positive. Not only would I do a bit of a clean-up (with the welcome help of my camping buddies) but also document the contents of my finds over the coming days to try to identify any recurring and particularly problematic materials.
The following morning I went armed with collection bags. The previous night’s weather had been calm, and knowing that of the 8 million tonnes of plastic debris that is estimated to enter the world’s oceans every year, only about 3% remains on or near the surface, I expected that much less would have been washed ashore. This is what I found:
Particularly concerning and unexpected were the remains of 5 party balloons. According to CSIRO, balloons, along with plastic bags and bottles are among the greatest threats to marine wildlife, and our enthusiasm for releasing helium balloons at outdoor events is a big contributor. (On an encouraging note, Retail First, the owner of 20 shopping centres in Queensland has announced a ‘no-helium balloon’ policy after one of its branded balloons was found in the gut of a dead grey-headed albatross.) Also among the culprits were cigarette butts, drinking straws and fishing debris including bait bags.
The next day’s haul, again after a still night, was hardly less impressive. Again the balloons, bait bags, butts and straws showed up, along with more discarded thongs and plastic bottles, even a fluorescent tube!
On the final day I was encouraged to see that the quantities of large items had reduced, however pieces of microplastics were still abundant, including the balloons, butts and straws!
These microplastics are the remains of larger plastic items that have broken down under the actions of wind, sun and wave, and are becoming almost ubiquitous in the guts of fish and other marine animals in many parts of the world. All the more important that beached macroplastic debris be regularly collected from the seashore before this weathering can take place.
While the efforts of our little band of waste collectors may have been a drop in the proverbial ocean, even these small actions proved something of an antidote to what might otherwise have been a disheartening experience.
Still more balloons, butts and straws
- While Take 3 for the Sea is a great initiative, by taking a collection bag on your trips to the beach and park, you can do even more
- When you’re out and about, if you can’t find a dedicated recycling bin, take your recyclables home with you
- Make sure that if you put waste in a public bin, it won’t blow away and end up in our seas and waterways
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