The Vicious (Re)cycle
by Rangsimatiti Binda Saichompoo
“Let’s play a game. Zoom in on this provided picture or any google images related to ‘marine debris’. Try to see what each of the individual objects are. Be mesmerised by how a piece of Lego got itself there as well as the fact that there might be up to 50 bottle caps in this single little beach.”
Awareness has continually been raised about how our environment has been continuously destroyed. Turtles mistaking plastic bags as jellies, oil spills causing mass killing of coastal and aquatic animals, microplastics now discovered in our bloodstream, and of course the famous ones, climate change and global warming! The world is an enormous heating oven. This small article, among all of the overwhelming problems of the world’s environment, will be specifically discussing the ocean and humans’ disposal of things (trash to be exact). As the title shows, this vicious cycle repeats itself again and again. Trash, mismanaged, goes into rivers, goes into oceans, kills, washes-up, beach cleanups, mismanaged, goes back into the ocean with the new batch, and so it goes.
Marine litter and coral reefs
The problem is not only the fact that there is a continuous litter input into the ocean, but also what kind. The type of litter being exposed into the ocean will have different impacts on the marine environment, some more than others. In fact, plastic always comes up first when we think about marine litter. It even makes up the majority of overall marine debris. Why is this such an infamous issue when the topic of pollution is raised? Well, plastic production, manufacturing, transport and even decay have detrimental effects on the environment. First of all, plastic is made of fossil fuels which are non-renewable resources. They’re based on materials called polymers; polyethylene, polypropylene and many others, whose properties are to resist heat, light, and numerous kinds of breakdown. From the moment they’re manufactured until the moment they get exposed to the salinity of the ocean, UV light and heat, they release a large amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) which is one of the main reasons why plastic is so unhealthy for the environment and contributes to the destruction of the ozone layer. Even though they do break down at one point, which can take from decades to millennia, they spend many years in their different form, as dangerous materials known as ‘microplastics’.
Even so, plastic is not the only character present as ocean debris. A variety of litter including plastics, styrofoam, ghost fishing nets, fishing gear, electronic devices, medical supplies, religious-related debris and so many more kinds of unexpected objects are being released into rivers and oceans. One of the reasons why there is so much outflux is that these materials are irresponsibly dealt with post-use.
Despite the contribution to climate change, marine litter also has destructive consequences to one the most diverse ecosystems of the world; coral reefs and marine organisms. Just because we don’t get to experience the beauty of coral reefs every single day does not mean that reefs are completely disconnected from humans. In fact, up to half if not more of the oxygen you are breathing right now comes from photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. Despite absorbing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we are continuously generating, the ocean also gives us a lot of other benefits. Coral reefs host up to 25% of all ocean life, benefit us in tourism, economical uses like fisheries and even educational purposes. Sadly, all it ever gets in return is more plastics, more litter and more emissions that heats the waters, bleaches and kills the corals. The more CO2 emissions absorbed, the more acidic the ocean pH becomes (known as ocean acidification). The higher the acidity level, the less survival there is for organisms with calcium carbonate structures (NRDC, 2022) (e.g. corals, oysters, clams, mussels). Corals being affected could mean less habitat for a big range of marine organisms. Moreover, the whole food chain is impacted as these specific organisms struggle to survive. Bivalves like mussels, clams and oyster are at the bottom of the food chain, so most of the upper consumers in the food chain will be affected, including us.
The infinite beach clean up
As this problem escalates, it is noticed by society and there are groups of people that are trying to take action. Despite the good effort, when we say ‘beach clean ups’, all we think about is to pick all kinds of trash we see, put them in trash bags, and throw them away somewhere. Unless your beach clean up event classifies, separates, and directly hands the picked up trash to recycling facilities, your beach clean up will only contribute more to landfills. A big part of the trash either gets back to decaying on land or it is only a matter of time until it gets back into the ocean again. Not to say that it is completely ineffective, however, solving this problem by the tail will not help much. The ocean is extremely vast, our common plastic bags have already made their way into the Arctic ice cold waters and sank deeper than 10,000 metres in the Mariana trench. We cannot pick up every single piece anymore. What we can do is stop inputting it, and then we can calmly do beach clean ups, expecting the number of trash to be less every week instead of always coming back everyday.
The rate of plastic production and manufacturing is drastically doubling and increasing continuously since its invention in the 1900s. It is also predicted that by 2050, the number of plastics produced will rise up to 1,500 million tonnes per year (Plastic Soup Foundation). That is 6 times more than all the weight of the whale population in the world combined in just one single year. Could we imagine how these numbers will add up every year? In fact, it had already accumulated since the first piece of plastic hit the waves. If we notice, up to 44% of the plastic produced is used in packaging. Not to mention what makes up the majority of trash found in the ocean; single-use plastics. Plastic cups, utensils, straws, coffee stirrer, snacks’ packaging, styrofoam containers and an endless list all of which have extremely short life spans of few seconds to few hours. The things that are used only ‘once’ in a person’s lifetime, but goes on and ‘continuously’ harms hundreds and thousands of living organisms. One good use to thousands of harm. Is that really worth it?
It is possible for other types of plastic that are not single use to be exposed to the environment as well. That includes toxic and dangerous materials including medical supplies (used needles, COVID-19 masks, drugs), electrical materials (batteries, wires, light bulbs) and chemical waste from factories or laboratories. Unexpectedly, there are more categories of marine litter than anyone would think, which takes us to the next part.
The ones that got away: Recyclable, yay or nay?
Sadly, a very small fraction of the whole collected marine litter can be recycled. That is one more motivation for us to prevent more plastic and waste from becoming marine litter. It is much easier to recycle your waste and packaging right after usage. Although not much can be done in terms of recycling of marine litter, separation and noticing the types of objects you pick up is very important. That is how they can each be disposed properly and if possible, can be recycled or used for energy production. We can get a closer insight into each of these categories as following;
As we are all aware, plastic can be both beneficial and problematic. It is flexible, tolerant to degradation, easy to use and cheap. It is perfect for packaging and protecting food and supplies. Even so, we should be weighing the pros and cons of plastic in order to manage its use better. Multi-use plastics (MUPs) can be more beneficial if it has a longer span of usage. MUPs can stay put in households, offices, commercial centres and so on. Acceptable, again, if properly taken care of post-use. On the other hand, single-use plastics (SUPs) are beneficial ‘once’. It becomes useless to everyone right after it is used. It’s trash to us, killers to other living organisms, GHG emitters and a material that lives on forever. They could degrade over time, but into more microplastics. Another well known category of plastic that can be very harmful is ‘styrofoam’. It has been investigated that styrofoam, whether big pieces or small chunks, has the ability to carry heavy metals like mercury (Graca et al., 2014) and hazardous substances like brominated flame retardants (Jang et al., 2016) everywhere it goes. Due to the fact that they quickly break down into smaller pieces, styrofoam’s ability to absorb organic or chemical pollutants make them extremely impactful and hard to recollect.
As mentioned before, plastic production and input had been unstoppable. Very sadly, COVID-19 pandemic has made things so much worse in terms of plastic consumption. Quarantines and social distancing had automatically increased the rate of online shopping as well as food delivery, all of which has so much more plastic content and packaging compared to the normal shopping behaviours. It had been calculated that since the pandemic, mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) generated ranges from 4.4 to 15.1 million tons (Peng et al., 2021). The majority of the MMPW was found to be medical supplies and waste from hospitals. Apart from packaging, new categories that also appeared are test kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). According to a computational model, the same research article predicted that the majority of the pandemic-related waste will be accumulated in seabeds and beaches. This will highly impact ecosystems in the benthic and coral reef areas, which contains the majority of ocean diversity.
Now, you have a choice. Would you be willing to carry around nice looking reusable cups and fill them with whatever you want to drink? Would you be willing to say no to straws simply because you can drink right from the cup? Otherwise would you have your own metal or silicone straw? Would you have your shopping bags ready so that you don’t need to get some everyday from supermarkets? If you own a restaurant, would you rather use glass or paper instead of plastic for beverage containers? If you own a touristic company, would you invest in reusable tupperwares instead of hundreds and thousands of styrofoam lunch boxes, plastic cutlery and small bags of sauces? Everyone has a choice, but not everyone realizes that their everyday life habits are causing so much harm.
Discarded, lost or broken fishing gear in the ocean can be fatal to marine organisms. This could range from light entanglement to strangling or tissue damage. Nets, cages, lines are commonly found as waste or lost material from fisheries. The term ‘ghost fishing nets’ was born because these gears keep on catching marine organisms even when they’re out of human hands; when they’re floating free in the ocean. Research based in Koh Tao, Thailand, has shown that up to 69% of corals are damaged when directly exposed to discarded fishing gear (V.Ballesteros, 2018). Additionally, 18% of corals around the affected area also show signs of damage.
This problem directly links to the methods used by fishermen and their management of fishing gear. It is hard to change habits, however, it can be done with the help of governmental facilities or companies that control fishing communities. According to the European Union (EU, 2021), fishing gear makes up 27% of marine litter and only 1.5% is recycled. They have tried to come up with strategies to tackle this problem by enhancing the circular economy as well as support research for new materials and designs that would be sustainable for fishing gear. There are definitely more organizations that are trying to deal with this issue. So, with continuation and good efforts, our management of fisheries will hopefully improve in a better way.
Surprisingly, syringes are one of the most frequently found medical waste on the beach monitored by ATMEC in Koh Mun Nai, Rayong. Not only could it physically harm people when it’s washed up, it can also harm marine organisms as well as act as a bacteria or virus carrier. It isn’t clear what syringes and needles are doing out in the ocean, however, it clearly indicates that our methods of managing waste, especially these harmful ones, are not effective enough.
Syringes and medical gloves might have been the top items found in this category, but not anymore after COVID-19 era. A research by Peng et al. in 2021 have found that in August 2020, hospital-generated medical waste makes up 73% of 4 investigated categories (hospital-generated medical waste, virus testing kits, PPEs, online shopping packages). This excludes ‘the usual’ waste generation of single use plastics and other kinds of waste, meaning that the numbers only add up to more.
Of course, no one primarily cares about the environmental aspects of the pandemic since everyones’ life is at risk. Thankfully, there are organizations that are putting in efforts into alleviating this problem in terms of waste management. Well-known organizations including WHO, WHO-UNICEF, UN and many more from other countries have carried out guidelines and advisories regarding how to utilize, store, collect and dispose of PPE and COVID-19 related waste. When comparing different countries and systems (Parashar et al., 2021), some countries are more wary of waste management than others. Anyhow, it is still common to dispose medical and contaminated waste with double plastic bags, incinerate them and then bring them to the landfill once sterilized. It would be reasonable to start incorporating new effective methods of medical waste disposal, so that both humans and the environment can live a safer and less polluted life.
There can be more?
Infinitely, categories of waste and litter go on and on. There are things like electronic devices, burned trash that combines every possible material, leakage of chemicals from factories and even religion-related materials.
In Thailand specifically, a famous festival called ‘Loy Krathong’ contributes some of its activity into the ocean. An ancient and religious festival that is arranged to thank rivers for bringing us life, while also actively inputting more threat into them. For instance, nails, styrofoam, plastic ornaments and other organic materials like banana leaves are used to make ‘Krathongs’. Even though organic materials could have low impact on the ocean, things that are placed on it are different. Some shops have tried to ‘recycle’ their coffee and instant noodle packaging into krathongs. However, as we know, effort will help when it is an educated one. The Thai government recently has tried to come up with ways to recollect all the Krathongs after the activity, but some still get away. More religious-related items in Thailand include pieces of plastic garlands, plastic ribbons and buddha cases. Hopefully, our community will be more aware of the consequences from unintentional littering from religion and festivals.
Where from? Where to?
It is obvious that all the mentioned litters were produced and utilised by us humans. Where did they come from? Us. Have you seen, touched, bought or used plastic today? I’m sure at least one applies. Everything around you right now; objects, clothes, food, containers, cosmetics and even furniture, will be disposed of at one point in the future. It all depends on how. The majority of the trash exposed into the environment, terrestrial or marine, is due to mismanagement and ignorance over what is known to be ‘worthless’. Trash is not as useful (for us) anymore. However, once you get rid of your trash bags, they don’t just vanish into thin air. They travel, miles and miles. They emit chemicals, toxins and false impressions that they are food. They break down, but never completely, into smaller pieces. Microplastics and particles. They entangle. They strangle. They kill. They move on.
Where from and where to are usually expected to be two different places. In this case, shall we say surprisingly, they are the same. This cycle travels back exactly to where it begins, viciously. Bits of ocean plastic, pollution, chemicals, and any results of our destructive industries are slowly crawling its way back to us. Specifically ‘into’ us. Numerous research and articles indicate that seafood consumption is one of the major inputs of microplastics into the bloodstream of humans (Curren, 2020). Bioaccumulation of these micro-polymers can be extremely threatening to human health as they climb up the food chain from one prey to predator (E. Miller et al., 2020). It is also discovered that the rate of detoxification of microplastics from the body is slower than the absorption into the bloodstream (A. Leslie, 2022), which is not so good to hear. Moreover, economically speaking, the effects of human activities and irresponsibly discarding various kinds of litter highly leads to lower resources we call seafood. Fishermen, fishing boats and especially trollers had been continuously taking marine animals from uncountable kinds of fish to bivalves, shrimps, crabs and even bycatch like sharks and seahorses. The more we take, the less we will have. When combining our fishing habits with the effects of plastic and litter, marine organisms are in great danger. And us too.
Can we change from vicious to virtuous?
We all have choices. We can’t control other people, but we can control our own behaviour. So, your smallest effort ‘matters’. Choose your products carefully, educate yourself on these matters, avoid single-use plastics, take care of your litter responsibly and be proud of yourself for doing all of the above. Not everyone is aware or taking ambitious action for these issues. If you have read your way until this point, you already chose to make an effort to help with plastic, waste and pollution issues. Well done :). Thank you so much for taking your time on reading this and I hope this could (even only the slightest bit) inspire you to make a change. Start from yourself and keep going!
P.S. For more statistical facts regarding the ocean and pollution, please further explore this website. Be aware of the ongoing issues and don’t be discouraged. Actions and educated efforts always matter!
- Curren, E., Leaw, C. P., Lim, P. T., & Leong, S. C. (2020). Evidence of marine microplastics in commercially harvested seafood. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fbioe.2020.562760
- Graca, B., Bełdowska, M., Wrzesień, P. et al. Styrofoam debris as a potential carrier of mercury within ecosystems. Environ Sci Pollut Res 21, 2263–2271 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-013-2153-4
- Jang, M., Shim, W. J., Han, G. M., Rani, M., Song, Y. K., & Hong, S. H. (2016). Styrofoam debris as a source of hazardous additives for marine organisms. Environmental Science & Technology, 50(10), 4951–4960. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.5b05485
- Leslie, H. A., van Velzen, M. J. M., Brandsma, S. H., Vethaak, A. D., Garcia-Vallejo, J. J., & Lamoree, M. H. (2022). Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood. Environment International, 163, 107199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2022.107199
- Miller ME, Hamann M, Kroon FJ (2020) Bioaccumulation and biomagnification of microplastics in marine organisms: A review and meta-analysis of current data. PLoS ONE 15(10): e0240792. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0240792
- Ocean pollution: The dirty facts. NRDC. (2022, June 7). Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/ocean-pollution-dirty-facts
- Parashar, N., & Hait, S. (2021). Plastics in the time of covid-19 pandemic: Protector or polluter? Science of The Total Environment, 759, 144274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144274
- Peng, Y., Wu, P., Schartup, A. T., & Zhang, Y. (2021). Plastic waste release caused by covid-19 and its fate in the Global Ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(47). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2111530118
- Plastic plastic facts & figures. Plastic Soup Foundation. (2023, January 4). Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/plastic-facts-and-figures/#productie
- Valderrama Ballesteros, L., Matthews, J. L., & Hoeksema, B. W. (2018). Pollution and coral damage caused by derelict fishing gear on coral reefs around Koh Tao, Gulf of Thailand. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 135, 1107–1116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2018.08.033