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Plastic, plastic, everywhere: there are some solutions

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Plastic debris on a Bermuda beach (Photograph supplied)

This is the latest in a series to mark World Oceans Day which looks at how plastics and other pollutants are affecting the marine environment. Here, Bermuda Marine Debris Taskforce member Jennifer Gray explains how plastics enter the ocean and how it can be prevented

The presence of plastic material in all of the world’s oceans is not a new story to residents of Bermuda. Generations of us have grown up with it, whether we are 60, 16 or 6.

Plastic waste is an inescapable fact of our island life, either stranded on our beaches or floating in our waters. It arrives on our shores almost daily in small to very large quantities. We clean up the mess individually, with our families, with friends or in KBB clean-ups.

Jennifer Gray is a former executive director of the Bermuda National Trust and the founder of the Bermuda Turtle Project

Scientists, civil servants, non-governmental organisations and volunteers here and around the Atlantic have been busy studying the scope of the problem for the past 15 years. We have a pretty clear understanding that 80 per cent of the plastic in the ocean comes from land, either blown from coastlines or washing down rivers to the ocean. The other 20 per cent of plastic comes from the gear and equipment lost or discarded from the thousands of ships and fishing vessels at work in the Atlantic. We also see lost cargo items escaping from containers that fall off ships during storms. It is likely that the amount of ocean plastic debris will continue to increase, as we use too many plastic items and they inevitably escape our waste management systems.

We understand now that much of the plastic has been there for decades. Sunlight slowly degrades plastic, which becomes brittle and breaks up into small pieces known as micro-plastics. These pieces are frequently eaten by fishes, turtles and seabirds.

Multiple solutions will be needed to tackle the growing problem of marine plastic pollution and many possible strategies are emerging which might help to reduce plastic inputs.

There are attempts, with some success, to intercept the plastics in rivers before it reaches the ocean. If US rivers alone can be cleaned up, which is feasible, then it will be significant because the size of US plastic inputs probably exceeds all of the other countries around the Atlantic. The United Nations has been driving toward an international agreement on ocean plastics reduction and it is on the agenda for the G7 meeting this month.

Another strategy is to re-engineer plastics so that they can meet our needs but not persist in the environment. Many busy chemists are at work on this challenge, creating plastic polymers that degrade to their simple chemical components. Others are sourcing bacteria that might break down plastics and inventing plastics from sources other than fossil fuels.

Strategies also include work to create plastics that can be truly recycled into new and useful products. This raises the value of waste plastics and should spur more effort to reclaim them from our waste stream, making plastic products too valuable to be thrown away. We are not there yet but there are significant advances made every year.

While the problem does seem insurmountable every small effort helps, so each of us should contribute in every way we can to prevent our Bermuda litter from reaching the ocean.

Jennifer Gray is a former executive director of the Bermuda National Trust and the founder of the Bermuda Turtle Project. She is also a member of the Bermuda Marine Debris Taskforce, a group of environmental and research organisations that aims to promote awareness of the impact of marine debris landing on Bermuda’s beaches and affecting marine life and to propose solutions to the growing problem

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Published June 16, 2021 at 7:59 am (Updated June 16, 2021 at 7:49 am)

Plastic, plastic, everywhere: there are some solutions

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