Shocking new evidence shows that 15 times more plastic than previously thought is dumped on coastlines each year. In mid-February, leading scientists published new statistics in the journal Science showing that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons are entering the sea each year.
That’s enough dumped plastic to cover every foot of coastline on the planet.
Without significant action the situation could worsen considerably; the amount dumped is set to double over the next decade.
teleSUR English spoke with Jenna Jambeck, one of the report’s authors and professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, about the findings.
teleSUR English: What are the consequences for marine life? What are consequences for human health, especially with regards to consumption of seafood?
Jenna Jambeck: As co-author of the report Kara Lavender Law has remarked: “While plastic may have a variety of harmful effects, ingestion is probably of highest concern. We know that eating plastic can be harmful – it can cause injury and contribute to starvation. We also know that plastics are manufactured with a wide variety of additives, some of which may be toxic, and that plastics also act as sponges for persistent toxins already present in seawater, such as DDT and PCBs. In the laboratory it has been shown that these toxins can transfer into animal tissue after plastic has been eaten, although we do not yet know how much of a risk this poses to animals in the ocean. This is an active area of research because there is rising concern about the potentially harmful effects of microplastics to marine animals, as well as to food safety and human health – these effects, if any, are not yet known.”
“Solutions will look different all over the world”
Can the oceans actually be cleaned of the millions of tons of plastics that enter them each year?
Cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility of large-scale removal from the oceans is doubtful. Floating microplastic are fairly widely dispersed and are also the same size as plankton and form the base of the food web. Then collecting plastics from the ocean floor is challenging given that the average depth of the ocean is about 14,000 feet.
How can waste management practices be improved?
We are not specific with this because solutions will look different all over the world. In addition, the influencing factors of a local input are different. We know how to design waste management systems, but waste management is not just a design problem, it is also has social and cultural dimensions. So we need to work together at a combination of local and global initiatives and we need global participation from various stakeholders, and based upon the diverse global interest in this work – I am optimistic this will happen.
What are the arguments in favor of developing countries prioritizing improving waste management infrastructure, something that often gets pushed aside as these countries strive to meet human needs first?
By changing the way we think about waste, valuing the management of it, collecting, capturing and containing it, we can open up new jobs and opportunities for economic innovation, and in addition, improve the living conditions and health for millions of people around the world and protect our oceans.
“There is rising concern about the potentially harmful effects of microplastics to marine animals, as well as to food safety and human health – these effects, if any, are not yet known.”
Individually, what steps can each of us take to reverse this alarming trend of increasing plastic debris entering our oceans?
I think in places like the USA, or other locals where infrastructure exists, we can make sure we manage our personal waste properly – and don’t litter. In addition, in these same places, using reusable items, like reusable water bottles, bags, etc. can help. Lastly, capturing litter, if it still occurs after the above actions, will help.
Technology, like the Baltimore water wheel that captures river trash, or cleanups, like those performed all around the world, can help for the last bit. Our infographic helps with looking at the different solutions, some are targeted at the larger scale (improving infrastructure) and some at the smaller scale (the last bit of capture).
Tell us about your Marine Debris Tracker mobile App. How does it work? How will it help your research?
The monitoring of litter and debris is challenging at the global scale because of disconnected local organizations and the use of paper and pen for documentation. The Marine Debris Tracker mobile app and citizen science program now allow for the collection of global standardized data at a scale, speed and efficiency that was not previously possible.
The app also serves as an outreach and education tool. The web portal instantly shows data that users have logged providing additional education. The engagement of users through a top tracker competition and social media keeps users interested in the Marine Debris Tracker community.
Over 400,000 items have been tracked with plastic being the most common category noted and maps provide both global and local distribution of data. It will further research in helping to characterize, quantify and locate litter and debris found throughout the world.