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The effects of plastics on the environment

13 April 2018

5 minutes to read

The effects of plastics on the environment

We hear from some of our researchers about the effect the plastics are having as well as how we can reduce our reliance on plastic products.

Marine plastics have become an important catalyst for ocean conservation

“Marine plastic pollution is an awful affliction wrought upon our ocean, its wildlife and the people with linked livelihoods. It is an affliction for which we are all responsible. Marine plastic pollution is not, however, the principle driver of loss of marine biodiversity, now or in the future. We must remember that poor fishing practices, destruction and degradation of marine and coastal habitats, invasive species and climate change may, in most cases, play far more significant roles.

The shared responsibility for the issue and the fact that marine plastics feels like it is in avoidable problem has, however, galvanised an immense change in public opinion and an apparent increased connection to the sea and its protection from governments, businesses and ordinary people. There has also been a parallel rise in grass-roots activism which is good on so many levels (eg environment, coastal business and human wellbeing).

Thus far, the research of my team has been showing that plastic is reaching marine mammals and marine turtles around the world. In some cases this is primarily an animal welfare issue but in others it may have the potential to have population level impacts. The overarching truth, however, is that it is a terrible shame for humanity when every sea creature (and perhaps every human!) now has microplastics in its gut. This mandates action.”

Professor Brendan Godley, Professor of Marine Conservation Science | Follow  Professor Godley on Twitter

Microplastics and the foodchain

“The scale of plastic pollution in our oceans is horrifying. It is now so widespread that plastic can be found almost anywhere we look. Once in the marine environment it poses a number of risks to wildlife, such as ingestion, entanglement, transport of invasive species and habitat destruction. Microplastics (less than 5mm in size) can be eaten by a whole range of organisms, from microscopic zooplankton at the base of the food chain to huge filter-feeding baleen whales. Not only that, these tiny pieces of plastic can be transferred from prey, such as fish, to top predators, including humans.Unless incinerated, almost all the plastic we’ve ever used is still in existence somewhere, in some form.

When we buy plastic we need to remember, there is no such thing as ‘away’. Unless incinerated, almost all the plastic we’ve ever used is still in existence somewhere, in some form. This is a scary thought but there are ways to tackle this problem. Reducing the number of single-use, disposable items that we use and choosing sustainable alternatives is an easy way to cut down on waste. For example, use refillable drinks bottles and cups, carry reusable shopping bags, say no to plastic drinking straws and cutlery, buy milk in glass bottles and use old-fashioned bars of soap (and shampoo).

As a researcher working on plastic pollution I see first-hand the impacts it has on our environment. I hope that growing awareness will eventually lead to positive changes and greater protection for our seas and beaches.”

Sarah Nelms PhD Student | Follow Sarah Nelms on Twitter

Threats of entanglement and ingestion

“Plastic is incredibly versatile and durable, in fact, most of us can’t imagine life without it. However, it’s this durability and inability to degrade that is causing such a problem in our environment – every piece of plastic that has ever been produced, is still around in one form or another today. Researchers at the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory found that land based sources of plastic, such as public littering accounted for the vast majority of beach litter around the UK coastline over a 10 year period.

Entanglement and ingestion of plastic poses a risk to larger animals such as turtles, marine mammals and birds, but when plastics break down into smaller pieces creating microplastics (plastic pieces > 5mm), they can then be eaten by a wide range of animals, from tiny zooplankton near the base of the food chain, to huge baleen whales. Ingestion of these tiny plastics can cause a variety of deleterious effects, including a reduction of food intake and energy available for important functions such as growth and reproduction in animals like ecologically important zooplankton and lug worms, and behavioural changes and intestinal damage have been observed in fish. Microplastics have been found in shellfish farmed for human consumption and the transfer of microplastics up the food chain has now also been documented in grey seals, a top marine predator. Tiny fibres are by far the most abundant type of microplastic found in both the environment and ingested by animals – a single 6kg wash of synthetic clothing can produce as much as 700,000 fibres.

Finding solutions to stem the flow of plastic into our environment must be a priority and tackled from both the top down and bottom up. UK Legislation has already been passed to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetic products and the levy on plastic bags throughout Europe has led to a 30 per cent decrease in the abundance of plastic bags found in British waters. These are both steps in the right direction, but just the tip of the plastic-iceberg. As well as legislation, research into plastic alternatives should be priority, with the ideal to move towards a truly circular economy so we can reduce our impact on Earth’s precious resources.

Finally, we, as consumers, have the power to reduce our reliance on plastic, and in particular, single use plastic. Carry reusable water bottles and lidded mugs, choose to buy loose fruit and vegetables and take your own cloth shopping bags to the supermarket. Refuse to buy products with unnecessary packaging, buy more clothing made of natural fibres such as cotton or bamboo and politely decline the use of a plastic straw in your drinks.

Undoing habits of a lifetime can be difficult, but bit by bit, we can all begin to adopt new habits that will reduce our reliance on the plastic that may end up polluting the environment and harming the animals that live there.”

Rachel Coppock, Biosciences PhD student based at Plymouth Marine Laboratory | Follow Rachel Coppock on Twitter

Reducing single use plastics

“Plastics is one of the most influential inventions of our time, but its greatest attribute is also its deadliest flaw: its persistence.

Reducing single-use plastic in your life can seem like a herculean task, when nearly everything we use has some form of plastic wrapped around it! However, simple swaps, community action, access to information, inspiration, finding the correct tools and coming together really do make a difference.

Simple swaps, community action, inspiration, finding the correct tools and coming together really do make a difference.

Our team members have seen this develop and grow first-hand in Cornwall, being involved in Plastic Free Falmouth, Penryn Produce and Falmouth Marine Conservation. However, with strong links with organisations, schools and individuals in Svalbard, we hope this expedition will be highly collaborative and have a meaningful impact, which goes above and beyond publishing scientific papers.”

Flora Rendell-Bhatti, Biosciences research student | Follow  Flora Rendell-Bhatti on Twitter

Knock-on effects of microplastics

“Microplastics are a major area of public and government concern at the moment, being found in every part of the ocean and on 75 per cent of UK beaches. These microplastics are small enough to be ingested by marine animals including those at the bottom of the food web, and have been found in the guts of over 300 different marine species. Over 300 million tonnes of plastics are produced globally, every year, and half of these are for single-use items.

Our research at University of Exeter, and that of others, has shown that ingestion can cause gut blockage and physical injury, oxidative stress, altered feeding behaviour, and reduced energy allocation, with knock-on effects for growth and reproduction across a range of fish and invertebrates. Microplastics can also be passed up the food chain.

To reduce our plastic usage, we can avoid using single use items such as plastic bags, plastic cutlery, and takeaway coffee cups. It’s great that there is more public awareness now and that it is being talked about in government.”

Dr Ceri Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology | Follow Dr Lewis on Twitter

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