Our oceans are home to around 80% of life on earth, with half of the world’s biodiversity found below its surface. One of the biggest threats to life below water is ocean litter, with the vast majority of litter composed of plastic.
Plastic is generally made from crude oil and natural gas, with fossil fuels formed from decomposed animals and plants over millions of years. Once these fossil fuels are extracted, they are sent for refinement to create the main building blocks for plastics: ethane from crude oil and propane from natural gas.
These chemicals are then further refined to create the plastic products that we see and use today. When plastics are heated, they can be moulded into any shape, making them a cheap and attractive material for packaging and products. Single use plastic, which makes up 40% of all plastic waste, is commonly used for items such as water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups and lids, plus many more of course. Everything from TV’s, phones, and cars are also partly made by single use plastic.
Plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade or never truly degrade at all. Instead, much of the plastic in our oceans breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics - roughly the size of a grain of rice or even smaller. Microplastics cause significant impacts to our marine life with many animals ingesting microplastics mistakenly as food, causing starvation and widespread toxicity in the food chain.
Since the early 1950’s 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced and an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are in our oceans. Every minute of every day, the equivalent of 1 garbage truck full of plastics enters our oceans. This is causing devastation to many of the creatures that call the ocean home, as they can mistake it for food, or become trapped or entangled in it. Research by CSIRO found that 90% of sea birds alive have eaten plastic and that the impact of plastics in the ocean is greatest on birds that gather in the Southern Ocean, including in waters off southern Tasmania. In the stomach of one bird, their researches discovered a staggering 200 pieces of plastic.
Now more than ever before, increased efforts and interventions are needed to conserve our oceans and stem the tide of plastic.