Author: Elizabeth Bennett 
Photo Credits: Koko Fotografia

Chances are, you’ve probably heard the statistic that by 2050 there could be more plastic in our oceans than fish. If not, you may have read that the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans every single minute.

It’s certainly scary stuff.

Thanks to the Blue Planet effect (David Attenbourgh’s game-changing documentary) and activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, the awareness of the mammoth plastic problem has become mainstream conversation in recent years.

Government legislation in many countries banning plastic bags, straws and microbeads has pushed things in the right direction. Similarly, new material innovation and system change within some companies have accelerated this too.

However, the sheer volume of plastic waste remains huge.

Exploring the plastic problem

The pieces of plastic that end up in the ocean are broken down by the harsh conditions and motion into tiny pieces called microplastics which are spread far and wide.

To understand why there is so much ocean plastic in our oceans, it’s important to distinguish just where it is coming from.

Around 20% comes from water based activity like shipping and fishing (‘ghost gear’ such as fishing nets and longlines accounts for 10%) but 80% comes from sources on land. Plastic that is recycled incorrectly, littered or placed straight into drains (for example, flushed down the toilet), travels through drains and waterways and ends up in the sea. Even our clothes shed microfibre plastics when they are washed in the washing machine.

While the 2020 global pandemic has certainly provided some respite for the planet – carbon emissions have dropped as a result of industry closures and flight bans – the plastic problem has only been accelerated. The necessary use of largely plastic-based PPE (personal protective equipment) in hospitals has caused an increase in waste. Especially considering disposable plastic items like masks, gloves and gowns must be changed multiple times a day in order to keep infection risk at a low.

Widespread face mask wearing in public spaces has compounded this further. Across the world, masks have become a mandatory part of normal life with the single-use plastic masks often the easiest and most accessible option. COVID-19 triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month and 2020 was predicted to create 30% more waste than 2019.

Non-recyclable PPE ends its life in landfill or the sea. For the plastic waste in the sea, this causes a plethora of issues. Masks and gloves cause problems for marine life, in particular for sea turtles who mistake them for jellyfish, their favourite food. Similarly, the elasticated material in masks makes entanglement an issue for many types of fish, animals and birds.

The future and how we can help

Not all hope is lost and citizens themselves can play a part in making a difference, as while disposable PPE in hospitals is near-impossible to avoid, for those not working on the front line or with health conditions, wearing a reusable fabric mask is the best first step to reducing pandemic-related single-use plastic. Try supporting a business locally or finding an independent maker via a platform like Etsy. There are also tonnes of tutorials on Youtube if you’d prefer to sew your own. If you have three or four fabric masks on rotation you can wash them regularly to prevent spread of bacteria.

Similarly, avoiding single use plastic in your everyday life will help too. Taking tote bags to the supermarket, shopping in zero-waste stores or markets and using tupperware or a reusable coffee cup when getting take-aways is all helpful. Of course, this isn’t always possible, so choosing better plastics (ideally recycled and recyclable) alongside buying from companies prioritising eco innovation is the next best step. Also, you can try refillable household products (like washing up liquid or laundry detergent), packaging-free beauty products or get a microplastics filter for your washing machine.

Spreading the word about ocean plastic via social media and campaigning in your community is crucial too. Or, look to support organisations doing work in this space such as The Ocean Cleanup, Surfers Against Sewage or Plastic Oceans. While the pandemic has exasperated the plastic problem even further, the so-called ‘great pause’ has also enabled us to rethink our lifestyles and refocus our energy and efforts moving forward.

Also, read the article “Breath in, breath out – 5 sustainable face masks to make it through in style” or find useful and easy daily swap suggestions that each of us can make here.