May 2016

Marine Plastics: We Should Fight Them on the Beaches

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Eunomia Research & Consulting has today launched an infographic to explain the problem of marine plastic litter – to illustrate where it comes from, where it ends up and the best ways to address it.

The infographic brings together some of the key findings from its recent research on this subject and includes a new estimate of annual global emissions of primary microplastics.

 

Eunomia Marine Litter v8

 

Over 80% of the annual input comes from land-based sources. The main contributor is larger plastic litter, including everyday items such as drinks bottles and other types of plastic packaging, but the importance of primary microplastic emissions is increasingly understood. The remainder comes from plastics released at sea, the majority as a result of fishing activities – for example, due to lost and discarded fishing gear.

94% of the plastic that enters the ocean ends up on the sea floor. There is now on average an estimated 70kg of plastic in each square kilometre of sea bed.

Despite the high profile of projects intended to clean up plastics floating in mid-ocean, relatively little actually ends up there. Barely 1% of marine plastics are found floating at or near the ocean surface, with an average global concentration of less than 1kg/km2. This concentration increases at certain mid-ocean locations, with the highest concentration recorded in the North Pacific Gyre at 18kg/km2.

By contrast, the amount estimated to be on beaches globally is five times greater, and importantly, the concentration is much higher, at 2,000kg/km2. While some may have been dropped directly, and other plastics may have been washed up, what is clear is that there is a ‘flux’ of litter between beaches and the sea. By removing beach litter, we are therefore cleaning the oceans.

Dr Chris Sherrington, Principal Consultant at Eunomia, said:

“Prevention is usually better than cure, and there’s a lot more we could do to stop plastic from entering the marine environment in the first place. Preventing waste and preventing litter can go hand in hand. The charge on single-use carrier bags is a cost-effective step in the right direction, but we should be considering the same approach for other commonly littered plastic items, like take-away cups and disposable cutlery. Deposit refunds on beverage containers would help incentivise people to return them for recycling, and reduce the amount littered.

“When plastic does get into the sea, it’s clear that efforts to remove it from the beaches are extremely valuable. They’re generally more accessible than the mid-ocean, there’s more material there overall than there is floating, and it is much more concentrated on beaches.”

The infographic can be downloaded here.