Plastics are lightweight, tough materials that we use everyday, but often do not consider the environmental impact of. Their durability means that they can remain in the environment for centuries, and are now considered one of the greatest threats facing marine ecosystems today. It has been projected that if waste management does not improve, our oceans will contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025! So what types of plastics are out there, and how do they impact our seas?
Macroplastics are relatively large processed materials such as plastic bags, bottles, and straws.
Macroplastics are not only unsightly, but they are also dangerous for animals who ingest them. We have all seen the photos of seabirds that have a belly full of plastic. Why does this happen? Research has shown that algae covers ocean plastics over time and releases a chemical called DMS (Dimethyl Sulphide) when eaten by krill, seabirds’ favourite food! As many birds search for prey using their sense of smell, DMS rich water signals dinner time and the birds will scoop up whatever is within the area, ingesting not only krill but macroplastics! Consuming macroplastics cause internal blockages in many animals including seabirds, and can be fatal.
Microplastics are less than 5mm in length (smaller than a sesame seed) and can be classified into primary or secondary categories. Secondary microplastics occur when fragments break away from larger macroplastics, while primary microplastics are purposefully manufactured. Primary microplastics include:
-Microbeads which are used in many toiletries such as cleansers and toothpastes.
–Abrasives which strip rust and paint from buildings and vehicles.
–Fibres from synthetic fabrics.
It’s estimated that on average 63,320 microplastic particles currently float on top each square kilometre of the ocean, posing a huge threat to our marine friends. Suspended microplastics are mistaken for food by organisms at the bottom of the food-chain. These organisms are then eaten by predators, passing the consumed microplastics up the chain. Microplastics are now so widespread that they have been found in beer, salt, and seafood!
Microplastic consumption reduces the level of nutrients animals would usually get from eating their natural source of food, which can lead to lower energy levels. Some microplastics also absorb toxic chemicals from pollutants in the surrounding water, affecting animals’ hormone levels and behaviour, reducing reproduction rates.
THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH
Macroplastics and microplastics congregate within the ocean, and in 1997 The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered between Hawaii and California. This floating island of plastic debris is three times the size of France and is estimated to weigh around 80,000 tonnes – that’s the same weight as 500 jumbo jets! The Garbage Patch creates a cloudy soup which blocks sunlight to key producers such as algae and plankton, threatening the marine food web.
Its not all bad news though! Green businesses are creating innovative products to reduce unnecessary plastic consumption. This includes The Cheeky Panda team, who are working towards removing all plastic from our packaging by the end of 2020. Our entire range is having a complete wardrobe makeover, starting with our newly released cardboard packaged pocket tissues!