Human dependency on plastics over the past 70 years has increased catastrophically. Quite simply, we just cannot live without it. Plastic is cheap, versatile and convenient. These qualities have allowed our “disposable” lifestyle to develop and become a social norm. We are now producing 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which are single use. In the United States alone in 2014, over 100 billion plastic drinks bottles were sold, which averages at 315 per person. Plastic is a valuable resource, and plastic pollution is an unnecessary and unsustainable waste. Where does all of this plastic go? Well, eight million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans each year.
One of the panellists at our 2017 Galapagos Day event, Professor Tamara Galloway, describes the problem of plastic in the ocean further: “Plastics are lightweight and durable. They’re moved by winds and tides for very long distances, and very quickly, and they’re highly persistent and don’t break down. The marine environment is governed by winds and tides, and so plastics tend to accumulate in certain areas more than others.”
There are two main ways that plastic endangers the lives of marine creatures at sea, entanglement and consumption. It is estimated that over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. Entanglement occurs when marine animals get caught in debris, inhibiting normal function. Objects such as fishing lines, beer rings and rope can wrap around the neck, fins and tails of many marine species. Eating plastic is also incredibly dangerous for marine animals. Another of our panellists, Professor Brendan Godley, has explained in further detail the effects: “When turtles ingest plastic, they can suffer intestinal blockage that can result in malnutrition which can in turn lead to poor health, reduced growth rates, lower reproductive output and even death.”
There are approximately 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. 92% of these are microplastics – tiny plastic particles that have been degraded by the wind, waves and UV sunlight – which cannot be treated in water plants and therefore flow freely into our water sources. When in the sea, plastics can also absorb toxic chemicals, such as pesticides, flame retardants and motor oil. This poisonous plastic can enter the food chain, including microbeads which are about the same size as fish eggs and look suspiciously like food to an undiscerning sea creature. We are even potentially harming ourselves, as the bioaccumulation of toxic plastic moves through the food chain to the fish we eat.
Plastic pollution is a global issue, but its affects are seen at a local level including in Galapagos. GCT are developing a plastics programme to address the damaging effects of disposable plastics across the Archipelago. In Galapagos, the pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters are becoming increasingly polluted with plastic. The Government, however, is taking steps in the right direction to alleviate this issue. For example, the “Action for the Planet” initiative by the Ministry of the Environment recently organised a Galapagos beach clean, where over 800 volunteers removed 4,353kg of rubbish from the coasts of Galapagos.
In spite of these positive developments, plastic pollution is still a significant issue in Galapagos, as it arrives via ocean currents and from its usage on the Islands themselves. One study in 2015 found that over eight million plastic bags and one million Styrofoam containers were used in Galapagos, prompting legislation to ban plastic bags that same year. Our 2017 Galapagos Day panel of leading scientists will be discussing some of the key issues around plastic pollution in Galapagos, such as how does plastic pollution affect our planet at the micro and macro level? How can society change to combat the plastic pollution problem? And ultimately, can there ever be a plastic free Galapagos?