The problem with plastics
Plastic doesn’t break down easily. Most plastics are non biodegradable, meaning most of the bacteria and fungi normally responsible for breaking down waste, cannot break the plastics down. The plastics therefore remain in the environment. This build up of plastic can cause numerous problems, such as the entrapment of animals and bioaccumulation.
Last year Iolo Williams, from the BBC’s Autumnwatch programme, visited Grassholm island, off the Pembrokeshire coast, and he found out about the issues with plastic there.
Gannets nest using seaweed they collect from the surface of the water. Unfortunately, the gannets have been mistaking floating plastic debris as nesting material and using it to build their nests. What tends to happen as a result is that the birds create their nests with parcel ties, polythene, and fishing nets, and they get caught up in it and cannot escape. Many adults, and chicks, die tied to their own nests.
Gannet’s are pretty birds, despite their less than pretty name. Gannet pairs perform elaborate greeting rituals, rubbing their beaks together. You can see a video of this on YouTube by evelyng23. Please do your bit to prevent gannets dying in such a horrible and senseless way.
If you’d like the figures, ScienceAlert explains How much plastic waste is ending up in our oceans.
Plastic as food
Some animals mistake broken up plastics as food. Baby albatrosses have been found dead, their stomachs full of plastic their parents erroneously fed them. There are pictures of this but it’s obviously not a pretty sight. Injesting plastics can cause starvation, dehydration, internal blockages, and of course death.
Plastic at sea can break down with the aid of UV light from the sun, but these smaller pieces can absorb toxins, and can end up being eaten by marine animals. Toxins may enter the food chain this way. This YouTube video from MinuteEarth explains it well.
Once toxins enter the food chain, they can build up.
Bioaccumulation – when a substance such as a toxin is built up in living tissues faster that it is removed.
Biomagnification – when the level of a substance increases as you go up the food chain.
If some fish have ingested toxins, predators of fish may have increased levels of the toxins because they eat many fish. The toxin bioaccumilated in the fish’s tissues, and the toxin is biomagnified in the predator because in eating lots of fish, it received a higher dose of toxin.
Research is currently being done, but if toxins are entering the food chain it may have an impact on human health. We eat fish and many other creatures that will be coming into contact with plastics at sea. 5Gyres.org has lots of information on plastics at sea including the problems and potential solutions.
Micro plastic beads are being used in body scrubs, and similar, for exfoliation. This gets washed down the drain and can end up in the sea, adding to the problem. The MSC website explains more about this and what to look out for, and you can pledge to Scrub it out and stop using products with micro plastic beads. Fauna and flora int have a downloadable good scrub guide to help you identify the products that use plastic beads.
During Winterwatch 2015, plastic beads were actually found in otter spraints (poop) in Scotland.
What can we do?
1. Stop adding to the problem – use less plastic and single use items, choose items with minimal packaging, recycle and reuse, encourage packaging redesigns, and encourage product redesigns (so they can be reused instead of being single use).
2. Clean up – pick up litter and recycle it, take part in beach cleans..
The bonus of doing a beach clean is that there are many cool things you might also find… shells, egg cases, bones, barnacles, and many other treasures. Download the MSC seashore safari guide or check out the BBC guide to thing you can find.
3. Long term solutions could be biodegradable plastics or plastic alternatives.
I love science, but I’m no scientist. I researched, but if you spot a mistake, please say so and I’ll fix it. Thanks.
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