Despite global efforts to reduce the use of plastic, the world still produces more than 260 million tons of plastic each year. Only one per cent is recycled globally. Much ends up in landfills. But, worse, some of the plastic ends up in the world’s oceans.
No one knows how much plastic lies in the oceans. Studies over the past few decades have suggested that millions of square kilometres of ocean surface may be covered with floating “garbage patches” (which are not like solid floating islands but are more diffuse and barely visible to the naked eye).
There are at least five known garbage patches: three in the Pacific, including the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, estimated by some researchers to be roughly the size of Texas, and two in the Atlantic.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimated 10 years ago that more than 13,000 visible pieces of plastic litter were floating on every square kilometre of ocean in the world, with 80 per cent of this coming from land-based sources and 20 per cent from ocean shipping transport.
Nearer home, scientists studying the effects of plastic contamination in the Mediterranean have noticed several pollution hotspots not far from Malta.
The scientific director of the Tara Expedition, a French not-for-profit environmental organisation, whose research vessel has just sailed into Malta as part of a seven-month survey, said that en route to the island from the eastern Mediterranean they had observed spots of concentrated floating plastic. They had to pull out their nets several times because “they had turned black with pollution”.
“At times, it was disgusting to see plankton surfacing and sticking to patches of asphalt”, he reported.
As the director of the expedition pointed out, once plastic entered the digestive system of small fish some toxins remained in the creature’s body which was, in turn, eaten by larger fish, thus ending up on our dishes as part of the food chain.
The purpose of the Tara Expedition is to understand better the impact of plastic on the ecosystem, which entails the collection from the surface of the sea samples of plastic remains no larger than five centimetres, which they then quantify by size and weight. They will also attempt to identify the types of plastic and the organic pollutants that stick to them and the microbes living in them.
The goals of such expeditions are invariably to identify and quantify what is in these samples, to clarify how fast any patches are growing, how fast the plastics degrade and to determine how they affect the marine ecosystems. The Tara Expedition hopes to build up a map of the distribution of plastic in the Mediterranean with a view to encouraging governments to take a stand in reducing the consumption of plastic.
The problem is not unique to the Mediterranean but being a relatively small and enclosed, intensely-fished sea it is particularly vulnerable to the effects of plastic or other pollution.
In Malta’s case, given that the island’s marine area within its territorial waters is 14 times as large as its terrestrial space and already suffers on its eastern shores from fairly heavy pollution, it is in our self-interest to ensure that controls on plastic pollution are strenuously encouraged.
Half of the plastic produced for consumption in Malta comes from grocery bags, which could easily be replaced by paper bags or biodegradable plastic.
There would also seem to be a strong case for switching to reusable bottles of water instead of disposable plastic bottles, many of which end up polluting our sea.