Will no one tackle this tide of plastic?
PUBLISHED: 07:31 22 September 2017
Opinion: Tackling the epidemic of sea-borne plastics is becoming an urgent issue, says Nick Conrad.
A month ago a diver went missing off Norfolk’s coast. The 68-year-old man, from the Brighton area, had been diving on a wreck. Our brilliant lifeboat crews from Gorleston, Lowestoft and Caister launched to help. In my reporting of this tragic incident I spoke with various personnel conducting the search. They had been out for more than 24 hours scouring the water hoping they’d be able to locate the missing man. Sadly the diver wasn’t found - but what they did identify was an issue we must tackle and take seriously.
At one stage while searching one lifeboat crew thought they’d successfully identified the diver. Bobbing up and down in the brine was an item that looked like a lifejacket. On further investigation, the Caister Lifeboat crew was disappointed to report that the ‘lifejacket’ turned out to be a party balloon blown out from the land. This became a common theme as the sea appeared to be ‘littered’ with plastic waste.
Individuals I interviewed reported being confronted by a junkyard of human debris. Plastic water bottles, synthetic netting, wrappers and even part of a tyre emerged from the gloom. Our wonderful sea has become a dumping ground for waste. Is this a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind?’ There are even worries that what is visible could be just the tip of the iceberg. About 70pc of all ocean debris sinks down from the surface, leading experts to fear that huge unseen rubbish dumps are accumulating at the bottom of the ocean.
I accept this is nothing new. For decades we’ve been aware that pollution at sea is a growing problem. The waste we’re pumping into the water compromises our beautiful sea creatures. Marine life tangled in netting and post-mortems of whale’s stomachs revealing pathetic supermarket bags felling these spectacular giants.
Once in the ocean, plastic litter also affects the safety of anyone who eats seafood. This stuff is so destructive. When broken up into tiny pieces, the substance releases toxic chemicals which leach into the water over decades, the concentration of these toxins increases as it moves up the food chain. Exposures to these chemicals have been suggested to contribute to some cancers and infertility, as well as immune, metabolic, cognitive and behavioural disorders. This simple fact will turn your stomach: humans who eat seafood ingest 11,000 pieces of micro plastic each year.
Plastic gives us a major headache. It is notoriously difficult to recycle - and only 12pc of household waste is reprocessed. The rest is either burnt or goes to landfill. Only a small proportion is washed into the sea.
Maybe the solution will be found in understanding the true value in recycling. In short we need to make plastic valuable again. It’s bizarre that we have to pay someone to take away what is essentially a valuable commodity. Plastic is worth about £400 a ton, but we just chuck it! We need to make recycling pay – this is the simplest and only solution I can identify.
A recent claim that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 was intended to highlight a pollution crisis in the oceans. Though the conclusion of the report has been questioned, it is hard to dispute the broad theme that we’re sleepwalking into a big problem. I’ve seen first-hand the problems of polluted waterways in India, China and Vietnam. We need to ensure the UK is tackling this issue and leading the global solution.