a, Indonesia, May 29, 2013.

Every Litter Bit Hurts

It’s Coastal Cleanup Day

What do space and the ocean have in common? Their vastness, that we know little about it, and that both resemble the mess in a teenager’s room. Rather than piles of tossed out toys, used underwear and dirty dishes, in space one will find a junkyard of spent rocket stages and dead spacecraft. These end up in Earth’s orbit ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957. The number of pieces of space debris has risen to a burgeoning blizzard of over 500,000 fragments in orbit. Even though this space garbage is going to have a major impact on the future economics of space flight, it is of somewhat less concerning to humanity than the equally messy oceans.

A Beachcomber’s Paradise

Just how messy they are, an unintentional experiment showed when the Japanese tsunami in March 2011 swept about 4.8 million tons of debris into the sea. ‘You don’t often get a chance to take an entire city, put it in the ocean, and see what happens to all the stuff,’ Marcus Eriksen says. The scientist and adventurer sailed after the tsunami garbage on its 7000 km journey across the Pacific to find out all about marine debris. This debris included a rusting Japanese Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a set of golf clubs and a 50 m fishing boat, found by beachcomber in British Columbia.

But beachcombers can only comb 5 % of the floating debris. The much bigger part ends up in the Earth’s five great subtropical gyres – enormous, slow-moving whirlpools on the ocean’s surface which accumulate debris for years from currents and winds. Thousands of kilometers across, the biggest of these gyres is known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between two huge population and industrial centers – Asia and North America –the patch serves as Earth’s mighty bellybutton, covered in thin confetti of plastic. More than three million tons of confetti. In the world’s oceans that sums up to hundreds of million tons. And indeed the marine garbage problem is a problem of plastic, making up 85 % of all debris in the sea.

6.000.000 Tons of Trash to our Web of Life

Our economy is based on the one-time use of throw away plastics. ‘Instead of hunting and gathering, we now shop. And every time we shop, we accumulate plastic: a toothbrush; a vat of butter; a bag of chips; a candy bar wrapper; it’s all made of plastic,’ illustrates another sailing environmentalist, Josh Berry. Over six million tons a day make their way to the sea, 80 % of it from land. The rest stems from the 10,000 containers lost by container ships each year or ghost nets, fishing nets left in the ocean, and the like. Once waterborne, debris becomes mobile blown by the wind, or following the flow of ocean currents, ending up in gyres and after decades on the seabed.

Problem solved? Not quite. Unlike in the deep space, the trash in the oceans is of a bigger concern than the threat to the odd satellite, orbiting the blue planet. Its name is well deserved, since blue oceans cover two thirds of the Earth and provide over a billion people with food. You wouldn’t want to trash the place where your food comes from, would you?

Beyond global food security oceans are essential to the health and survival of all life, power our climate and are a critical ecosystem of the biosphere. The marine ecosystem makes up a large part of biodiversity, the global web of life. Just take the ASEAN region, harboring the mega-diverse coral triangle. It supports six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, 51 of the 70 mangrove species and 75% of global coral species. The ecosystem services such reefs provide globally, come to an estimated annual value of $112.5 Billion.

Beyond this money, the region is also crucial to the global cycle of plankton, tiny floating marine creatures, which regulate the global climate and feed all other marine animals. But now, for every kilo of plankton per cubic meter of seawater the great garbage patches contain approximately six kilos of plastic. That means that there is more trash in the oceans than living beings and, even worse, it is passed up the food chain to reach all marine life. A sad fact which endangers the vital biodiversity, the very same beings make up.

Hitching a Hike on a Floating Motorcycle

Coral is smothered by plastic, fish get trapped in drifting ghost nets, birds die from eating plastic. 95 % of the sea bird Northern Fulmar, found dead on beaches have plastic in their stomachs. Marine debris harms an estimated 100,000 sea turtles and marine mammals, and millions of other sea creatures each year. For instance plastic shopping bags can clog digestive tracts, causing starvation tricking the animal into thinking it is full.

However, much of the plastic is ending up as microplastic – fragments less than 5 millimetres across. On the bright sight this microplastic is hosting life, creating a new niche in the vast oceans. The tiny fragments in the Atlantic Ocean have been colonised by microbes not found in open water, a community dubbed the plastisphere.

Trashing is a good thing than? Hardly, since on the flipside, the plastisphere can also work as a mini raft, transporting dangerous species around the world, like the Vibrio bacteria causing cholera. And such rafts can be much bigger, like our Japanese Harley-Davidson, on which invasive species can be hitching rides around the globe. Hotspots like the bays of San Francisco or Manila amount to global zoos of invasive species, which break the earth’s natural barriers, muck up the area’s marine environments, cost billions of dollars to manage, and endanger local biodiversity.

Another way, biodiversity is put at peril are a thin layer of industrial chemicals and petroleum, coating the plastic particles, creating little poison pills that fish eat and absorb. And if fish are feasting on these toxic morsels, then be sure, we are too.

Clean up the World

To avoid feeding on poison and to protect the marine web of life, there is a very easy way: Reducing and preventing trash from entering our waterways. It is critical to manage man-made debris at every point, from its manufacture to a product’s consumption. Slowly this is recognized by the plastic industry, meeting on International Marine Debris Conferences to address the ocean garbage issue – with what results remains to be seen.

On a regional level the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity – in cooperation with GIZ, the German development cooperation arm – has a strong emphasis on marine topics. The center, based in the Philippine university town Los Baños, coordinates networks of marine protected areas and takes marine debris seriously.

From Los Baños comes also a clear solution on the local level. As the first Philippine city it enforced a ban on plastic bags in 2008, now followed by 60 other Philippine municipalities – but lobbied against by the plastic industries. Perhaps making the business case is more convincing: Increasing the recycling rate by 14% in a few years – thus lowering plastic waste – the Republic of Korea already created economic benefits of $1.6bn a year.

Until this trickles down, join the global anti-litter movement. True to the motto Clean Up the World, an astounding 35 million volunteer in 130 countries each year. Engage already today, 15th September, in the 27th International Coastal Cleanup. Last year the global effort on 28,516 kilometers of global waterways and beaches netted a staggering 5 million kg of trash, equivalent to the weight of 41 blue whales. What to do with all this garbage showed activist David de Rothschild. He built a raft, the Plastiki, from old plastic bottles and sailed into, where else but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

If that is too adventurous for you, perhaps you are lucky and find a friendly floatee. 350.000 of them are travelling the world’s oceans since 1992 when some containers with child’s bath toy were washed overboard a cargo ship. As friendly as the red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks might seem, they still are among the ocean’s silent killers.

First published on Wednesday, 30 November 2013, 08:00, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror