Tackling the ocean plastics problem now

Electron microscope image of a microplastic fibre (long piece) with marine plankton. These microplastic fibres originate from synthetic fabrics and are released into wastewater every time we wash our clothes. (Photo: Professor Andy Cundy)

Electron microscope image of a microplastic fibre (long piece) with marine plankton. These microplastic fibres originate from synthetic fabrics and are released into wastewater every time we wash our clothes. (Photo: Professor Andy Cundy)

Professor Andy Cundy, School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton

Over 100 million tonnes of plastic may now be present in the oceans and the amount is increasing year on year. Estimates suggest that by 2050 there may be more plastics (by weight) than fish in the sea.

Multiple types of plastic are now found well beyond our coastal seas, from remote mid-ocean surface waters to the deepest ocean trenches. Once plastics enter the ocean they are difficult and costly to remove.

Tackling the source of the plastics problem is critical. Interventions include reuse, recycling and replacement with alternative materials, enhanced management of wastewater treatment works, banning of microbead plastics in, for example, cosmetics, and communities worldwide coming together to collaborate in a proposed Integrated Marine Debris Observing System (IMDOS).

There is real value and huge potential in scientists, policymakers, industry and the public working together:

(a) To better understand the amount of plastics entering the sea, and their pathways and distribution between land, the coastal ocean and the deep sea to assess the risks to people and fisheries; and

(b) To tackle the plastics problem at source by developing local, regional and national policies to reduce the amount of plastic debris entering the sea and impacting marine ecosystems.

Several nations have already put in place measures to limit the amount of plastics pollution entering the environment and our seas, ranging from bans on certain plastic products to reducing the use of single-use “throwaway” plastics and plastic packaging. There are so many opportunities to build on this, collaborate, and learn from each others’ experiences.