The problem of the ocean's plastic crisis
Updated: May 7
The start of the pandemic saw people flee from cities and as offices shut and people stopped travelling in lockdown; hope started to spread that pollution would start to reduce. But another crisis, which has been simmering for years, continued to grow: plastic pollution contaminating our oceans.
In April, the UK government delayed its ban on plastic straws, in the US consumption of single-use plastics may have grown by 250-300% since the start of the pandemic, according to the International Solid Waste Association, and there’s been the growing demand for more PPE and personal single use facemasks.
This is the backdrop to an environmental crisis, which is damaging ecosystems and causing harm to wildlife.
How big is the problem?
Twice the size of Texas. And that’s just the Great Pacific garbage patch, a mass of debris floating in the central North Pacific Ocean, filled with plastic along with other waste. This is just one consequence of the build-up of between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans annually, leading to a prediction that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
The effects of this are wide reaching with microplastics being found in arctic ice cores, more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals being killed each year and plastic is even found within the food we eat, from fish to fruit and vegetables.
Tackling the problem is getting more and more crucial, but there’s a variety of solutions that scientists, governments and nature itself are coming up with.
A new study found that growing underwater seagrass meadows could help fight the crisis as seagrass traps microplastics and washes some of it back to shore, as the particles bind together.
Researchers examined seagrass that had washed up on the beaches in Mallorca and found that more than half of the vegetation they analysed contained plastic. This indicated that the grass acted as a filter, with dead leaves binding to the particles of plastic; this ball of vegetation was what was then found on shorelines.
In a human effort, Fionn Ferreira, an Irish teenager won $50,000 for a project helping to remove microplastics from water in the 2019 Google Science Fair.
He used oil and magnetite powder to create a ferrofluid, which combined with the microplastic. A ferrorfluid is attracted to the poles of a magnet, meaning the substance could then be removed from the water using a magnet, including the particles of plastic.
His plans for this are to then use the technology in wastewater treatment to stop plastics entering our oceans.
Another human effort to reduce plastic contamination was started by Marc Ward for Sea Turtles Forever. Turtles often fall victim to microplastics by swallowing them but they are also in danger from plastics on the beaches where turtles nest. Ward's plan to tackle this type of plastic pollution is with a Microplastic Filtration System which they have patented, it uses static charged filtration technology to remove microplastics as small as 100 micrometers in size (the size of a grain of sand).
These solutions are a huge step in the effort to fight plastic pollution, however, a change needs to be made in our general approach to plastic consumption, with reusable and plastic alternatives becoming an ever-important move to end this crisis.