Plastic production is increasing and a significant percentage of it ends up in our oceans each year. Around 300 million tons of new plastic products are currently produced each year, of which an estimated eight million tons pollute the oceans. On the occasion of the plastic-free July 2021, AZoCleantech takes a look at the extent of plastic pollution and a current development aimed at reducing the damage to our planet.
Plastic pollution in rivers is a serious threat to the environment. Image source: Nenad Nedomacki / Shutterstock.com
The main source of marine pollution are the world’s rivers. It is believed that around 80% of plastic pollution in the oceans can be traced back to around 1,000 rivers worldwide. Certain rivers are responsible for most of this pollution. A 2017 study found that 10 rivers (including the Nile, Yellow River, and Ganges) account for 88-95% of plastic waste from rivers.
Plastic pollution in our oceans is increasing every year as more and more plastic is produced and disposed of. Unfortunately, the ocean is predicted to contain more plastic than fish by 2050. To address this problem, scientists have developed a strategy to educate the public about the effects of river pollution and to warn that much of river pollution ends up in the sea.
Most of the plastic pollution in the oceans enters through rivers
Almost all of the plastic that contaminates the oceans gets there via the world’s many rivers. Trash entering our river systems often ends up in the ocean, with the river picking up more and more pollution as it flows into the ocean. Once in the sea, plastic is difficult to remove and is picked up by currents and transported around the world.
One study showed that plastic items washed up on a remote, uninhabited island between Chile and New Zealand. The plastic comes from Russia, the USA, Europe, South America, Japan and China.
Rivers therefore offer an opportunity to prevent plastic pollution of the oceans in the future. Plastic is difficult to remove from the oceans, but it is easier to pick up plastic pollution from rivers. Strategies that focus on cleaning rivers of plastic have tremendous potential to reduce the amount of plastic that enters our oceans.
The threat posed by microplastics
Once in the ocean, plastic pollution is broken down by water, wind, sunlight and waves. Plastic never degrades completely and breaks down into smaller and smaller particles and eventually into microparticles known as microplastics. These tiny particles pose numerous environmental and human health problems. This is a major concern as microplastics have been found in water around the world, even in the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough in the ocean.
Microplastics have been found in municipal drinking water systems and are even floating through the air. These penetrate the human body and wreak havoc. Studies have linked exposure to microplastics to serious diseases, including numerous cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and reproductive disorders. Plastics contain heavy metals which are also known to be dangerous to human health. When they break down, they release these elements into the water and can get into the human body via the food chain or water supply.
Scientists have proven that microplastics can accumulate in the human body. A 2020 study found that microplastics had infiltrated every type of body tissue tested in the experiment, including the lungs, liver, spleen, and kidney. Other recent research suggests that people consume (eat or inhale) at least 50,000 microplastic particles each year.
In addition to posing a significant threat to human health, microplastics also contribute to climate change – as the sun heats the plastic in the ocean, it releases greenhouse gases.
Therefore, reducing the amount of plastic that enters our oceans is critical to protecting human health and combating climate change.
How 1% of the world’s rivers emit 80% of the pollution in our oceans | Research | The ocean cleanupTo play
Video Credit: The Ocean Cleanup / YouTube.com
Recycled plastic boat removes plastic from rivers
Scientists have been working on solutions to prevent plastic pollution from entering the ocean by removing it from its main source – the world’s rivers. One such solution, which is being implemented in the UK, is to educate the public about the effects of plastic pollution. A recent project made a boat out of recycled plastic that was then used to collect plastic from Bristol Harbor.
The project aimed to educate the local community about the effects of garbage. On organized plastic fishing trips, the Seacycler, a punt made of 99% plastic wood (a polymer material made from recycled single-use plastic), help organizers and locals remove plastic from local rivers. The people in the community learn how rubbish can affect their port and ultimately the sea.
Projects like the Seacycler project can help reduce the amount of plastic pollution that enters rivers. The plastic extracted from traveling with the Seacycler is used to build other boats for similar projects. A similar intervention was carried out with the Seacycler along the Basque coast, where plastic was collected that was not converted into boats but recycled into technological fabrics to make technical garments.
References and further reading
Campanale, Massarelli, Savino, Locaputo and Uricchio, 2020. A detailed overview study of the potential effects of microplastics and additives of concern on human health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 (4), p.1212. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7068600/
Microplastic particles are now detectable in human organs. Damian Carrington. The guard. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/17/microplastic-particles-discovered-in-human-organs
Recycled plastic boat goes on plastic trawl in Bristol Harbor. BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-57805053
The global plastic pollution crisis explained. Laura Parker. The National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-verschichtung