In the first of a three-part series, Arowana Impact Capital presents an overview of the effects of plastic pollution on the world’s marine and coastal resources.
There’s an entire universe waiting to be discovered below water. In fact, scientists know more about the moon than about the world’s oceans despite these bodies of water taking up 75% of the Earth’s surface.
The vast “unknown” represents 99% of all living space on the planet. Yet even before researchers have been able to understand every square kilometre of our underwater ecosystems and their inhabitants, humans are already causing damage to these resources through pollution.
By 2050, scientists estimate, the plastic waste ending up in our waters today will outweigh the creatures living in our oceans. In just a single year, humans dump as much as 17.6 billion pounds of plastic waste into our waters. Now, imagine heading down this destructive path year after year, decade after decade.
Finding Microplastics Where They Shouldn’t Be
Plastic waste often turns into artificial islands that clog up the water surface. In the Pacific Ocean, the “floating dumpsite” called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch already contains 1.8 trillion pieces of garbage. This coagulated mass of plastic and other wastes now covers an area double the size of the state of Texas in the US, according to Conservation International.
Exposed to the sun and battered by the waves, plastic pollutants in our oceans over time break down into nearly microscopic pieces, less than 5mm in length, or “about the size of a sesame seed,” as described by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
From the surface, microplastics spread out further into other areas of our oceans. Meanwhile, other forms of microplastics such as microbeads, which are typically found in health and beauty products, emanate from household and community waste in the run-off from drainpipes.
Finding microplastics where they shouldn’t be, marine creatures mistake these pollutants for food. In the process, some microplastics end up in the food chain in the wild and, eventually, into our diets when we consume seafood. A study published in the journal Nature, for example, found more than a hundred items of waste in the digestive tract of wild-caught yet commercially viable fish in the Great Barrier Reef.
Off the Indian Ocean, the Maldives – an archipelago long recognised for its marine biodiversity – provides another cautionary tale about the dangers of dumping garbage near water resources. Around the time the local tourism industry started generating hundreds of tonnes of garbage daily from commercial activities, the Maldives constructed an additional artificial island to serve as a dumpsite.
After two decades of waste mismanagement, however, effects on the environment became evident. Marine scientists from Flinders University in Australia soon discovered the Maldives produces high amounts of microplastics in its beaches and coastal waters.
Investing in the ‘Blue Economy’
More than three billion people depend on the world’s oceans for their livelihood. In fact, enterprises of various scale, capitalising on marine and coastal resources, are valued at US$3bn and constitute 5% of the annual global GDP, based on figures from the UN. Failing to address environmental degradation, specifically the impact of plastic pollution on our waters, is tantamount to killing an entire swath of industries.
The commitment to protecting the world’s oceans and seas and restoring their ecosystems has intensified with the establishment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG14 on “Life below Water”. The first goal is to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution” by 2025.
The UN Development Programme aims to fast-track initiatives with the launch of the Ocean Innovation Challenge, which finances and guides the development of “truly innovative, entrepreneurial and creative approaches” to ocean/coastal restoration and protection, while sustaining livelihoods and advancing the ‘blue economy.’
“The goal of the OIC is to accelerate progress on SDG14 by catalysing replicable and scalable innovations – including technical, policy, economic and financial – that can be sustained and contribute directly to the delivery of one or more SDG14 targets,” the UNDP said.
The OIC provides project funding of US$50,000 to $250,000. But there is more to be done, particularly, in ensuring that innovative projects transform traditional marine-dependent livelihoods into sustainable enterprises benefiting local communities.
“Supporting the blue economy in this way can help us achieve SDG14 – while spurring economic development and helping to reduce poverty and inequality,” said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner.