Created: 06/16/2021 7:59 AM
Plastic waste on a Bermuda beach (photo is included)
This is the latest in a series on World Oceans Day that explores how plastics and other pollutants affect the marine environment. Here Jennifer Gray, a member of the Bermuda Marine Debris Task Force, explains how plastic gets into the oceans and how it can be prevented
The presence of plastic in all of the world’s oceans is not a new story for the Bermudians. Generations of us have grown up with it, whether we are 60, 16 or 6 years old.
Plastic litter is an inescapable fact of our island life, either stranded on our beaches or floating in our waters. It arrives on our shores almost every day in small to very large quantities. We clean up the mess individually, with our families, with friends or in KBB clean-up campaigns.
Jennifer Gray is the former executive director of the Bermuda National Trust and founder of the Bermuda Turtle Project
Scientists, officials, non-governmental organizations and volunteers here and around the Atlantic have been grappling with the scope of the problem for the past 15 years. We have a pretty clear understanding that 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from land, either blown off the coast or washed into the ocean by rivers. The other 20 percent of plastic comes from gear and equipment lost or thrown away by thousands of ships and fishing vessels working in the Atlantic. We also see lost cargo escaping from containers that fall from ships in storms. It is likely that the amount of plastic waste in the oceans will continue to increase as we use too many plastic items and these inevitably escape our waste management systems.
We now know that much of the plastic has been there for decades. Sunlight slowly breaks down plastic, which becomes brittle and breaks into small pieces known as microplastics. These pieces are commonly eaten by fish, turtles, and sea birds.
Several solutions are needed to address the growing problem of ocean plastic pollution, and many possible strategies are emerging that could help reduce plastic pollution.
There have been attempts, with some success, to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the ocean. If US rivers alone can be cleaned up, which is feasible, then that will matter because the size of US plastic inputs likely exceeds any other country around the Atlantic. The United Nations has worked towards an international agreement to reduce plastic waste in the oceans and it is on the agenda of the G7 meeting this month.
Another strategy is to redesign plastics to meet our needs but not remain in the environment. Many busy chemists are working on this challenge, making plastic polymers that break down into their simple chemical components. Others obtain bacteria that can break down plastic and invent plastic from sources other than fossil fuels.
Strategies also include working on making plastics that can truly be recycled into new and useful products. This increases the value of plastic waste and should lead to more efforts to reclaim it from our waste stream, making plastic products too valuable to throw away. We are not there yet, but significant progress is being made every year.
While the problem seems insurmountable, every little effort helps, so each of us should do whatever we can to keep our Bermuda trash from getting into the ocean.
• Jennifer Gray is the former executive director of the Bermuda National Trust and founder of the Bermuda Turtle Project. She is also a member of the Bermuda Marine Debris Task Force, a group of environmental and research organizations that aims to raise awareness of the impact of landings of marine litter on Bermuda’s beaches and the impact it has on marine life and suggest solutions to the growing problem