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Swimming against a plastic tide

We’re only now realising that soon there will be as much plastic as fish in the oceans worldwide

Along Ireland’s coastline, you’ll encounter long sandy stretches and wild seas crashing against craggy coastlines. Yet, if we care to look under the surface – literally – it’s clear our seas and coastal habitats are not quite as pristine as would appear.

The global issue of plastic pollution has recently come to the fore, amplified by David Attenborough’s series Blue Planet II. According to a study by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis Working Group, roughly eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans from land, annually; a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.

Ireland apparently became one of the best EU performers for plastic recycling, though most of it has been treated in China where it is difficult to track, and which has now stopped taking European waste. We’re also the EU’s top producer of plastic waste, producing 61 kg per person annually. When not disposed of responsibly, this plastic can cause significant environmental destruction.

While difficult to form statistics on the quantity of plastics in Irish seas, the founder of Coastwatch Europe Karin Dubsky says we have an inkling on the extent of the problem.

“Through coastal surveys, we can see improvements in certain areas, for example there’s less pollution from oil and sewage. However, other problems seem to be persistent. Plastic drinks bottles continue to be the most widely distributed item found on Irish coasts`’, explains Dubsky. “The amount of coastal cleaning has increased but the baseline number of plastic bottles we find remains greater than in countries that have a deposit return scheme. Without this, we rely on telling people not to throw bottles and on cleaning up after those who do”.

Indeed, over 8,800 plastic drinks bottles were counted across 535 sections of Irish coastline in the thirtieth annual Coast- watch survey in 2017 – along with 4,867 cans, 988 plastic bags and over 1,100 tyres – some of which had formerly been used for peeler-crab traps. Inevitably, much of this waste will be swept in and out with the tides if not collected.

Plastic pollution isn’t solely a result of littering. Coastal landfill sites are falling victim to erosion, resulting in leakages of hazardous waste into the sea.

“At the old landfill site in Bray for example, the sea has been causing approximately 1.5 metres of erosion annually. We need these sites to be very secure to prevent this from happening”, says Dubsky. She adds that while a decision has now been made to appoint consultants to place rock armour at the Bray site, it would be more appropriate to remove the ‘band of waste’ altogether.

“It’s mind-blowing how slow it is for action to be taken”. Waste also ends up in our oceans as individuals take coastal erosion management into their own hands.

“We have no national erosion management policy so people decide to do their own thing. They put all kinds of litter in front of their homes but because the area is at risk from erosion, the sea takes it away”, says Dubsky.

Lack of policy surrounding the environmental impacts of new materials and products is having a detrimental effect. “We need a proper screening process so clever ideas don’t go to the market without being screened to ensure they aren’t going to create another litter problem”, she suggests. “Pontoons are one example. The cheapest way to make pontoons is using polystyrene with a concrete surface. During Storm Emma, polystyrene was released from pontoons in Holyhead following a breakage. From April 14 onwards, it has been arriving on our shores”.

Discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear, is also an environmental concern. According to a recent report from World Animal Protection, it kills over 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales every year, in addition to millions of birds, turtles and fish. An estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are left in oceans annually.

In the coming months, the Ghostfishing foundation will collaborate with local divers and stakeholders to remove discarded fishing gear off Irish coasts. Nic Slocum from Whale Watch West Cork is involved with the project.

“We decided it was important to first find out the extent of the problem”, explains Slocum. “We went to a number of dive companies and they told us that the extent of ghostfishing is not that great along the south coast here. Ghost-fishing is a greater problem further offshore on much deeper wrecks”.

As diving to such depths is challenging and requires specialist skills, the project is currently slightly delayed as organisers assess how they can run it in the safest and most effective manner.

For now, Slocum continues to take part in clean-ups and informs visitors about the environmental dangers of plastic. He has seen it first-hand, recalling incidents of seals getting caught up in nets and a recent occasion when he was alerted to a young whale trapped in fishing gear.

“We do see evidence [of harm from marine waste]: I can’t say daily or weekly but, when we do see it, it’s significant. For example, that whale would have starved to death if we weren’t able to free it”.

Internal harm is less obvious. As Ireland doesn’t have a facility to conduct post-mortems on large marine mammals, it’s impossible to know whether whales washing up on Irish shores have died as a result of plastic ingestion. However, worldwide studies suggest that this could be the case for some of our species, according to Slocum.

“Sperm whales are very prone to plastic ingestion. They feed on squid and often mistake plastic bags for food. Post-mortems have been done on many sperm whales around the world and it has been shown they are full of plastic. There’s no reason why it would be different here”.

While visible waste in our oceans is of great concern, an equally pressing but perhaps more difficult issue to tackle is that of microplastics. This refers to small plastic particles less than five millimetres long that although virtually invisible, can harm marine life. They’re created from the breakdown of larger plastic items, while they also originate from plastic fibres in clothing or microbeads in cosmetic products. Recent research from scientists at NUI Galway showed that 73 per cent of deepwater fish surveyed in the northwest Atlantic had ingested microplastics. The identified microplastics were mostly fibres and their potential sources include microfibres shed from clothes during washing. Lead author of the research Alina Wieczorek says that their studies are continuing as they endeavour to determine secondary effects of this ingestion.

“We have these plastics in our system now, and no way really of taking them out. In fact, it may get worse at first as larger plastics continue breaking down”, says Wieczorek. “The main thing to do is to stop them from entering the environment and move towards a more sustainable society”.

Introducing a deposit return scheme for drink containers and mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments for new products and materials are some larger moves that can be made, according to Dubsky, who also says concerned individuals can speak to politicians, participate in coastal clean-ups and utilise the Coastwatch Microlitter App. Meanwhile, Slocum believes that targeting plastic producers and supermarkets and ‘making plastic their problem’ is key.

This is precisely what happened through a recent ‘Shop and Drop’ day organised by Friends of the Earth and VOICE Ireland. This encouraged people to leave plastic packaging in supermarkets to highlight the need for businesses to act.

According to Coordinator of VOICE Mindy O’Brien, the campaign was a great success and just one of the many ways that individuals can play their part. Ditching single use plastics, buying goods with less packaging and voicing concerns to politicians are others.

“People are getting better with recycling at home; the government needs to bolster our infrastructure so that we can recycle on the go”, she adds.

Looking ahead, Dubsky is hopeful, particularly considering the European Plastics Strategy from the EU Commission; this promises that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, that consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted. O’Brien believes that we are making good strides in reducing plastic consumption but worries about historic damage.

“There’s so much in there now, how do we get that out?” she says. “The legacy issue is enormous”.

“We have known about this for twenty years and haven’t done anything about it. There is a movement and greater awareness now but unfortunately, an awful lot of damage gets done before change happens”, adds Slocum.

Amy Lewis