Stop this plastic madness polluting our seas says UN chief

Posted: 8 June 2009

A senior UN official today used World Oceans Day to call for a ban on thin film plastic bags that are among the growing tide of marine litter entering the oceans. This swelling flood of rubbish, ranging from discarded fishing gear to cigarette butts, is harming oceans and beaches worldwide, a global report says.

In a first attempt to take stock of marine litter in the world's 12 major regional seas, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Ocean Conservancy report that alarming quantities of rubbish are finding their way into the sea, endangering people's safety and health, entraping wildlife, damaging nautical equipment and defacing coastal areas around the world.

Children collecting litter
Children collecting litter
Children in Manila Bay, the Philippines, collecting litter in the harbour area (to sell). © Hartmut Schwartzbach/ UNEP.
Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said: "Marine litter is symptomatic of a wider malaise: namely the wasteful use and persistent poor management of natural resources. The plastic bags, bottles and other debris piling up in the oceans and seas could be dramatically reduced by improved waste reduction, waste management and recycling initiatives".

"Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere - there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere. Other waste can be cut by boosting public awareness, and proposing an array of economic incentives and smart market mechanisms that tip the balance in favour of recycling, reducing or re-use rather than dumping into the sea," he said.

Plastic poison

The report's findings indicate that despite several international, regional and national efforts to reverse marine pollution,the problenm is getting worse, with plastics and cigarettes leading the the "Top Ten" of marine debris . Plastic - especially plastic bags and PET bottles - is the most pervasive type of marine litter around the world, accounting for over 80 per cent of all rubbish collected in several of the regional seas assessed.

Plastic debris is accumulating in terrestrial and marine environments worldwide, slowly breaking down into tinier and tinier pieces that can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web. Plastics collect toxic compounds that then can get into the bodies of organisms that eat the plastic. Global plastic production is now estimated at 225 million tons per year.

Plastics can be mistaken as food by numerous animals, including marine mammals, birds, fish and turtles. Sea turtles in particular may confuse floating plastic bags with jellyfish, one of their favorite treats.

A five-year survey of fulmars found in the North Sea region found that 95 per cent of these seabirds contained plastic in their stomachs. Studies of the Northeast Atlantic plankton have found plastic in samples dating back to the 1960s, with a significant increase in abundance in time.

Smoking-related activities also receive top rankings when it comes to sources of marine litter. Cigarette filters, tobacco packets and cigar tips make up 40 per cent of all marine litter in the Mediterranean, while in Ecuador smoking-related rubbish accounted for over half of the total coastal litter 'catch' in 2005.

Wildlife toll

"The ocean is our life support system - it provides much of the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat and climate we need to survive - yet trash continues to threaten its health," said Vikki Spruill President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy. "The impact of marine debris is clear and dramatic; dead and injured wildlife, littered beaches that discourage tourism and choked ocean ecosystems. Marine debris is one of the most widespread pollution threats facing our ocean and it is completely preventable."

Swan with plastic around neck
Swan with plastic around neck
Swan with plastic around neck - Japan. Photo © UNEP/ Still Pictures
Tourism has a big impact on the state of seas and coastlines around the world, says the report. In some tourist areas of the Mediterranean, more than 75 per cent of the annual waste production is generated during the summer season. Shoreline activities account for 58 per cent of the marine litter in the Baltic Sea region, and almost half in Japan and the Republic of Korea. In Jordan recreation activities contribute up to 67 per cent of the total discharge of marine litter, while shipping and port activities contribute around 30 per cent and the fishing industry three per cent only. In Egypt, one in five of the country's hotels are located along the Red Sea coast.

If well-managed, tourism can contribute to maintaining the pristine appearance of beaches and waters, says the report. Seychelles and Mauritius contribute almost nothing to the marine litter load in the Western Indian Ocean despite being popular tourism destinations.

However, ocean winds and currents may carry unwanted marine rubbish far from its point of origin. For instance, Seychelles have reported an accumulation of rubbish on the east coast of the Mahé Island during the southeast monsoon, while items dumped off the west Australian coast have been retrieved on the east coast of South Africa.

Crowded coasts

Most litter in the sea comes from land-based activities, the report fouhd. In Australia, surveys near cities indicate up to 80 per cent of marine litter originating from land-based sources, with sea-based sources in the lead in more remote areas.

This is a particuarly big problem in the East Asian Seas region - home to 1.8 billion people, 60 per cent of whom live in coastal areas - with fast growing shipping and industrial development. Other emerging hotspots include the the oil-boom coasts of the Caspian and the littoral states of Iran and Azerbaijan.

In South Asia, the growing ship-breaking industry has become a major source of marine debris and heavy metal pollution to the adjoining coastal areas.

In Gujarat, India - one of the largest and busiest ship-breaking yards in the world - operations are carried out on a 10-kilometer stretch on the beaches of Alang, generating peeled-off paint chips, iron scrap and other types of non-degradable solid waste often making its way into the sea.

The lack of adequate solid waste management facilities results in hazardous wastes entering the waters of the Western Indian Ocean, South Asian Seas and southern Black Sea, among others.

Injured seal entangled in a fishing net
Injured seal entangled in a fishing net
Injured seal entangled in a fishing net in Germany. Photo © Brehen/ UNEP/Still Pictures
The cost of marine rubbish is enormous, in many ways. The bill for cleaning the beaches in Bohuslän, on the west coast of Sweden, in just one year was at least 10 million SEK or $1,550,200. In Britain, Shetland fishermen reported that 92 per cent of them had recurring problems with debris in nets, with each boat losing between $10,500 and $53,300 per year as a reult of marine litter. The cost to the local industry could be as high as $4,300,000.

The municipality of Ventanillas in Peru has calculated that it would have to invest around US$400,000 a year in order to clean its coastline, while its annual budget for cleaning all public areas is only half that amount. Flexible economic incentives and deterrents could do much to address the problem, here as elewhere, says the report.

Dumped overboard

At the moment, port authorities sometimes unwittingly discourage ships from bringing their galley waste back to shore - as seen in the East Asian Seas region where ships are charged on a user pays basis. As a result much of it ends in the sea - at a cost to the marine environment.

Adopting a 'no special fee' approach to port waste reception facilities, as pioneered in the Baltic Sea region, can substantially decrease the number of illegal discharges.

The level of fines for ocean dumping also needs to be reviewed to make them a sufficient deterrent, says the report. For example in the US the cruise ship Regal Princess was fined US$500,000 (about €336,600 or £268,719) in 1993 for dumping 20 bags of garbage in to the sea. Fines of this level would act as a genuine deterrent.

Income-generating opportunities linked to collecting and recycling marine litter can also make a big difference in some of the world's poorer regions.

"This report is a reminder that carelessness and indifference is proving deadly for our oceans and its inhabitants," says Philippe Cousteau, CEO of EarthEcho International and Ocean Conservancy board member. "Offered here are... solutions that everyone, everywhere in the world, can adopt to make a positive difference for our water planet."