This waste and pollution comes from many sources. Eighty per cent of all the waste that ends up in the ocean is believed to stem from activity and industry on dry land. The remaining 20 per cent comes from activity at sea, especially fishing and fish farming, shipping, and the oil industry. Research shows that as much as 94 per cent of the plastic that ends up in the ocean sinks to the ocean floor. Approximately five per cent lands on beaches around the world, while around one per cent floats around in the water.
Plastic that goes astray in nature remains there for a long time. Its life cycle can vary from just a few years to several centuries. Colder temperatures and lower exposure to UV radiation mean that plastic breaks down slowly in the ocean. Over time, the plastic is broken down in to smaller and smaller pieces. The smaller they are, the more difficult they are to remove. Large pieces of plastic become microplastics and nanoplastics. The definition of microplastics is that the particles are between 1 micrometre (1 millionth of a metre) and 5 millimetres in size. When the pieces of plastic are smaller than 1 micrometre, they are called nanoplastics.
Marine waste constitutes a threat to all animal life in the ocean, from the smallest plankton to the largest whales. There are reports of the discovery of plastic particles in the digestive system of a wide range of seabirds, marine mammals, fish, turtles and invertebrates. Each year, waste in nature leads to the unnecessary injury or death of a large number of animals. In animals as well as in humans, plastics in the stomach or gut gives a false sense of having eaten enough. Plastics can prevent the efficient uptake of nutrients because it can block vital functions of the gut.
What can be done?
New and extensive measures are urgently needed to prevent more plastic ending up in the world’s oceans. Cleaning the environmental sins of the past – those that are already lying on beaches, floating in the waters, or settled on the ocean floor – is of equal importance.
One important measure is to put an end to the use of unnecessary disposable plastics. The UN recommends a ban on such plastics by 2022, and all countries have to follow this up with their own bans. In addition, all businesses that produce plastics must take the responsibility to develop alternatives to non-biodegradable plastics. All industries that produce plastics must follow up with their own industrial agreements and producer responsibility schemes. Producers should provide information on what types of plastics they produce, how it should be properly used, how it should be disposed of and what the consequences are if it ends up in nature. It is also important that the producers develop good systems for its disposal if such systems for their products are not available today.
Marine waste is a major global problem. It requires extensive cooperation across different areas of expertise and national borders. The bulk of the plastic in the ocean comes from developing countries. One part of the solution is therefore to strengthen education and the international aid program in Norway for the further development of infrastructure and waste management globally.
In December 2017 the UN Environmental Assembly adopted a global policy of zero tolerance to stop the release of plastic into the ocean. For the zero tolerance policy to succeed, the UN resolution should be followed up by an international agreement to ensure the mapping of the sources of marine waste, increased market responsibility to prevent new deposits of waste, and the strengthening of waste management worldwide.
If plastic is to be removed, it must be cleaned up in the areas where the problem is greatest. At the moment, much of the clean-up work fails due to a lack of financing.
In addition to tangible measures to clean up and prevent plastic from ending up in nature, it is just as important to map, monitor and research marine waste. There is still a lot that we do not know about the problem of plastic.
REV – Prioritized areas of research and innovation
It is important to continue and strengthen the effort to map, monitor and research the negative consequences. This is something that the REV initiative will facilitate and contribute to:
- Develop technology that systematically maps plastic waste on the ocean floor.
- Develop technology that makes it possible to collect waste from the ocean floor in a cost-effective way and without significant negative effects on ocean biology.
- Be an international research platform that assembles actors who are working on plastic waste in the ocean’s depths.
- Undertake regular water sampling that is able to reveal microplastics on all of its expeditions and at all depths.
- Lead research on the effects of plastic waste and microplastics on marine life and in marine ecosystems, including the health consequences of microplastics in seafood.
- Develop fishing technology that does not contribute to plastic waste or ’ghost fishing’.