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A Big Mess in the Oceans – And No One to Clean Up?

A Big Mess in the Oceans – And No One to Clean Up?

It is a normal part of our daily life, it comes in all different shapes and sizes and is used in a variety of ways – plastic. Ever since its invention in the first half of the 20th century, modern industry can barely be imagined without it. We are the ones who demand and consume plastic – from the toothbrush next to the sink to the keyboards of our computers. A citizen in Europe consumes an average of 50 kilograms of plastic per year, a number equivalent to 29,500 plastic bags.

An industrial revolution

Plastic revolutionized the industrial production, it enables a fast and cheap manufacture of all types of goods and most importantly, it makes the end product more affordable. Hence, both producer and consumer profit from the use of plastic.

Taking a closer look at the macro level, plastic in industry is essential for a country’s economy because most  of the products sold in national as well as in global markets contain it.

Given that it makes our everyday life less complicated, most people do not doubt the constant usage of it. Neither do most states, especially not developing countries such as Brazil or China, which rely on the use of plastic in their industries. In recent years, however, an issue reached the level of world politics which is linked to the mass consumption of plastic.  As soon as the usefulness of our plastic-made products have run their course, they are disposed of. Only 12% of the plastic used in the United States is recycled.

What happens to the remaining 88%?

photo courtesy of plasticos.se

Eight million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year. According to the scientific journal Plos One, 250,000 tons of plastic drift around our oceans at any given moment. Most of it is part of one of the 5 largest garbage swirls. The largest one, the so called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific is the size of France. The lives of millions of sea creatures and birds are endangered. A plethora of different species of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and fish have already died because they consumed large pieces of plastic. Smaller fish are not as affected by eating plastic, but this is how plastic makes its way in our food chain. This is why the issue of plastic in the oceans is highly relevant and dangerous for human kind as well.

How can this problem be dealt with?

Formally, the oceans do not belong to a specific country except for the coastlines. Thus, it is a problem international politics have to deal with. The collective nature of this issue gives way to a variety of other problems.

Who is in charge of the cleaning up? Specific countries with the highest consumption rate of plastic per capita? International organisations? The corporations which produce the plastic in the first place?

These questions still remain unanswered, though the UN held their first ocean conference in June 2017, thereby formally putting a focus on the implementation of Goal 14 (Sustainable Development Goals of the UN). The Sustainable Development Goals were set in 2015 by the UN in order to call for international action to end poverty, ensure people all over the world can live in peace and prosperity and protect the planet. The target is to achieve them by 2030. Goal 14 aims at achieving a sustainable use of the Earth’s water resources.

A collective effort

All of us can contribute. The main reason why so much plastic came into the ocean in the first place is that most plastic products such as plastic bottles or plastic bags are only used once by us, the consumers. Glass bottles and canvas bags are good alternatives. If we reused our plastic products and avoided getting new ones it would already make a difference and help the situation.

Through a collective effort we can thereby contribute to a reduction of plastic reaching the oceans, helping millions of creatures in the sea, and lastly preventing us from finding plastic in our food.

 


About Lucia Mohr

Lucia is a second year student of IRIO in Groningen. She has a special interest in the environment and in international organisations. As a reporter of Checks & Balances, she aims at asking critical questions whilst trying to open readers' eyes that would otherwise remain closed.

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