From a just-implemented ban on microbeads to new moves to phase out single use plastic bags, efforts to curb plastic pollution have reached an unprecedented pace. But is today's action decades too late? Jamie Morton asked Auckland University of Technology marine biologist Steph Borrelle.

We've now found plastic in Antarctic waters. That means the pollutant has been found in all corners of the world's oceans, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, and at the deepest point of the ocean - the Mariana Trench. But given humans are sending eight million metric tonnes of plastic into the marine environment each year, should this be any surprise?

I wish it was surprising because it's difficult to imagine that we have produced so much plastic that it has permeated to the pristine reaches of the Antarctic, but we have.

We have produced over nine billion tonnes of plastic in the past 50 years – more than half of that in the past 13 years – while some is recycled, perhaps 8 per cent globally, and much less is incinerated, some is contained in landfill, but that still leaves an awful lot of plastic in the world.

Advertisement

We find plastic everywhere we look, the deep ocean, in sea ice, 2km deep in deep sea corals, on every beach, in the soil, in sea salt, bottled water, fish and more than 700 species of sea-life, and now Antarctica – we are truly living in the Anthroplasticene.

While the Antarctic has been protected from some of impacts of human activities because of the international community banding together to stop exploitation of its resources, the fact that we are finding plastic pollution there is a stark reminder that the problem is a serious global issue that transcends national boundaries, like climate change, or ozone depletion.

To address it, we have to take global scale action.

We can relate the volume of plastic going into the oceans to an equivalent weight of 24 jumbo jets, or to Eden Park stadium stacked with plastic more than a kilometre high. We can also show people those tragic images of sea-life tangled up in plastic, or dead from ingesting it. To the average person, do you believe these facts and images are meaningful and are likely to change habits?

When I saw Chris Jordan's photograph of a dead albatross with a pile of plastic pieces inside it for the first time, it was a catalyst for me to take action, to improve my habits around single-use plastic, it led me to social action, and directed my scientific career.

I now spend my life trying to make a positive difference fighting plastic pollution – I am an average person.

I have seen my choices to reduce single-use plastic inspire my friends and family to do the same.

Our individual choices ripple through our communities, by leading by example we show others how they can make a difference too – that's incredibly powerful.

Images are persuasive, whether they are of wildlife affected by pollution or conjured in our minds to give us an idea of scale.

As Margaret Mead famously said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

In the fight against excessive single-use plastic, it has indeed been the committed citizens of the world that is the driving force to reduce plastic pollution at regional, national and international scales.

A protest against single-use plastic bags in Whanganui. Companies are increasingly committing to phasing them out. Photo / File
A protest against single-use plastic bags in Whanganui. Companies are increasingly committing to phasing them out. Photo / File

At the moment, the change we seek isn't happening at the pace that is needed to match the scale of the problem, that's why we need our governments step up and take action, such as implementing bag bans, container deposit schemes, product stewardship laws, and improving recycling infrastructure.

Another grim statistic: there could be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. From the data we have so far, is this accurate, or might more science around volumes tell us we've been under-estimating (or over-estimating) the problem?

Although it is a grim statistic and there may be some truth to it, unfortunately we don't have the data yet to be able to make that claim without a large amount of uncertainty.

The estimates of plastic entering the oceans - eight million metric tonnes, which are used to calculate the volume of fish versus plastic - are calculated using mathematical models with the best available data, but we don't always have all of the data.

It's also important to clarify that the estimate of eight million tonnes is a mean projection from 2015 - the upper estimate was 12.7 million tonnes.

Plastic production has increased from 322 in 2015 - to 335 million tonnes in 2016, the latest data available.

If we assume plastic production is increasing 4 per cent annually, that's around 348 million tonnes produced in 2017 – an extra 26 million tonnes since 2015, with a proportion of that ending up as waste in the ocean on top of that estimated eight million tonnes.

Without a complete dataset, it's hard to say accurately how much plastic there really is – but I would be inclined to say we are underestimating the problem.

While, the metaphors of "there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050" are not necessarily numerically accurate, they are a useful way of illustrating the scale of the problem and it also can help relate how plastic pollution could affect human food security.

Every year, Kiwis churn through a billion plastic shopping bags. Photo / File
Every year, Kiwis churn through a billion plastic shopping bags. Photo / File

It conjures images of plastic on our plates rather than fish – and that may not be too far from the truth if we continue on a business as usual path.

Importantly, there are increasing human health concerns about the transfer of harmful contaminants from plastic pollution to harvested fish and seafood.

Some contaminants, like persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, have a tendency to adsorb into plastics from ocean waters.

There are also toxins that are added to plastic during manufacture, like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), which is a flame retardant and a known carcinogen and neurotoxin.

If the seafood we are eating ingests plastic, there is the potential for contaminants to be transferred to us.

There are a lot of questions about how or if these toxins might cause harm in people, but it is something we need to think about.

So far there has been little direct sampling of plastics in New Zealand waters. What makes doing the science so challenging?

I think the lack of investigation into plastics in our environment is not because it's scientifically challenging but because we have had more imminent threats to deal with.

For instance, invasive predators are causing widescale devastation to our forests and native species, hence the need for investing in research and action to make Predator Free New Zealand happen.

The most challenging aspect to investigate multiple environmental threats, including plastic pollution, is securing research and conservation funding, which is incredibly limited.

There is an increasing amount of work being done in the field of plastic pollution: for example, Ana Markic, a PhD researcher at the University of Auckland, is looking at plastic ingestion in commercially harvested fish species in Aotearoa.

But in all honesty, we need more money to expand this type of research, and implement sampling and monitoring of plastic in the waters of Aotearoa to better understand the issue.

The Government's ban on many types of products containing microbeads kicked in this month. What difference might this make?

The microbead ban is a great start, and it will indeed cause a reduction in microplastics entering our waterways and ocean – every little bit counts.

Importantly, the microbead ban draws attention to the problem of microplastics and the potential environmental impacts they are having.

Unfortunately however, microbeads from personal care products are a small proportion of the problem, there is also glitter, wear from road tyres, industrial shavings and air-blasting technology to name a few.

A lot of the problem still comes from large plastic items – or macroplastics – household and commercial items, including fishing gear.

When macroplastics are in the ocean, in addition to being a hazard to wildlife from entanglement or ingestion, they also break-up into smaller and smaller pieces becoming microplastics.

More recently, research from around the world is identifying microfibres as a significant problem, that's tiny plastic fibres that shed from clothing like fleece, or any synthetic clothing when it's washed.

One study found that a single fleece jacket can release more than one million fibres in a wash, and that a standard wash can release as much as 20 million plastic fibres.

What's concerning is that recent studies show microplastics can transfer up the food chain, even to humans.

We live in a plasticised world, all of those plastic products are sources of pollution, and eliminating or reducing use as much as possible is the only solution.

With strong signals from the Government around further crack-downs around plastic - notably around single-use plastic bags, which many companies are also now trying to phase out - do you feel New Zealand is heading in the right direction?

Aotearoa is heading in the right direction, but in many ways we are being pulled along by the international momentum that has been building on the issue, rather than of our own volition.

A discarded plastic rubbish bag floats on a tropical coral reef. It's been estimated the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050. Photo / 123RF
A discarded plastic rubbish bag floats on a tropical coral reef. It's been estimated the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050. Photo / 123RF

We are definitely lagging behind in many aspects, that are arguably "low-hanging fruit" – for example, a nationwide plastic bag ban.

Countries like Bangladesh and Rwanda have had strict bans for more than a decade and arguably less resources to supply alternatives.

I am really pleased the Government has announced a bag ban will happen this year, but we need more action, such as container deposit schemes and increased recycling infrastructure.

The question is whether we can be leaders in the fight against plastic pollution, and I believe we can – we are a small but mighty nation, but we need to start taking bolder action, and quickly.

Just as we know with emissions that are driving climate change, it's not just about the choices we make as individuals here in New Zealand, but what other countries do. Given the amount of plastic waste now flowing from major countries, is there any real hope of avoiding some of those worst projections?

I am optimistic that we can avoid the worst projections, but we have to work fast.

Even in the past couple of weeks there have been a flurry of announcements around the world about taking meaningful action to reduce plastic pollution.

If those promises are fulfilled, then the global community has a real opportunity to reduce the long-term impact on those animals and ecosystems that are affected.

We still have a big job of cleaning up the mess that's already there, but the first and most important step is stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean.

The crucial thing to remember is that all of us, as consumers can play a role in reducing plastic pollution, simply by our everyday choices.