The Problems with Plastic Pollution

Monday, 04 Jun, 2018

Plastic pollution is a globally recognised environmental issue as marine ecosystems around the planet are increasingly affected by human-made refuse - much of which is plastic. Over time plastic items break up in the natural environment and do not disappear and these smaller pieces are dispersed throughout the ocean.  


Plastic pollution is a threat to all marine life including birds, sharks, turtles and marine mammals, causing injury or death through drowning, entanglement, or starvation following ingestion.

Oil bottle with bite marks found during a beach clean-up.

Plastic Pollution and the Impacts on Marine Life

Since plastic was invented, our ocean has slowly turned into a plastic smog, which is poisoning the marine environment. When plastic enters the ocean, UV light, tides and wind break it up into smaller particles known as microplastics and these are ingested by fish, birds and marine mammals. The result can be a slow and painful death from starvation as their stomachs are full of plastic that they no longer feel hungry.

Everyday items we use, when in the ocean, can be fatal to innocent creatures: a frisbee becomes a collar of death to a sea lion, nylon fishing line can sever the legs of birds, and nets and ropes may entangle and drown dolphins, whales and turtles.

An endangered green sea turtle killed by plastic pollution found during a remote clean-up on Moreton Island, QLD.

A conservative estimate of 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million seabirds are killed each year from the impacts of plastic in the ocean. 


Plastic is made from oil with added chemicals.  Plastic is in itself toxic, but in the marine environment, it acts like a sponge attracting and absorbing pollutants from the surrounding water. Scientists have shown that it can be one million times more toxic than the water around it, creating a health issue for marine life that ingests plastic. 


Studies and analysis of marine plastic pollution conducted by the global scientific community are revealing its severe impacts:

- 44% of marine mammals and 86% of turtle species are estimated to have plastic in their stomach. 

- 80% of seabird species ingest plastic, 90% of birds in those species had plastics in their stomach. 

- 99% of the world's seabirds species will be ingesting plastic by 2050 if current marine pollution trends continue.

- Between 12 and 15 million metric tonnes of land-based plastic enters the ocean each year. 


With irrefutable evidence that plastic is being eaten in significant quantities by all sea creatures - from corals to zooplankton to whales, this also creates severe concerns regarding the potential contamination of seafood -  both the health of marine life and humans who are at risk.  


We have been led to believe that plastic will just disappear. But, now we know this is simply not true. Every piece of plastic made in the last 70 years is still here on our planet. It doesn’t break down; it breaks UP into smaller and smaller pieces until it is so tiny that it cannot be seen by the naked eye. 


Plastic bottles found during a remote clean-up on the beaches of Moreton Island, QLD.

The main types of plastic affecting marine-life:

Microplastics: less than 5mm diameter - broken up from larger pieces of plastic. Also, Nurdles, pre-production pellets from which all plastic items are made. 

Microplastic beads:  less than 1mm in diameter. These are added to personal care and commercial cleaning products and are washed down the drain straight to our waterways.

Microplastic fibres: These are tiny fragments that shed from nylon clothing and travel through sewage and stormwater drains to end up in the ocean.  Less than 1mm diameter, these microplastic fibres are consumed by all forms of sea-life and are the most abundant form of plastic found in the ocean. 

Fishing gear:  Discarded fishing gear accounts for around fifteen per cent of the plastic in the ocean. Once made from natural materials, they are now produced from industrial high-density plastic.  Buoys, ropes, nets and longlines are silent killers entrapping and suffocating sharks, dolphins, turtles, sea lions and a host of other sea creatures.  

Plastic pollution is a global problem as there are no boundaries in the ocean. Currents and gyres distribute plastic to every part of the planet from Antarctica to the Arctic leaving no place untouched! 

At present, there is no fool-proof, all-purpose method of eliminating plastic from our ocean, but what we can do is reduce our plastic footprint, advocate for legislative changes to ban single-use plastics, demand sustainable alternatives and clean our beaches.

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