Ocean plastic pollution is expected to grow fourfold by 2050


By Sarah Eager

It’s 2018. Plastic straws are public enemy number one. Anti-straw sentiment sweeps across the internet with hashtags like #laststraw and #StopSucking. The video of a sea turtle impacted by a plastic straw has been making the rounds since 2015. Corporations and governments are taking notice. Out of nowhere, anyone who cares about the environment opts to forego plastic straws. We all get a dopamine hit, that sense of moral superiority, each time we proudly announce, “No thanks, no straw for me!”

Five years on, the oceans are saved. Right?

Unsplash: Naja Bertolt Jensen

“Plastic pollution will become a contributing factor to the ongoing sixth mass extinction leading to widespread ecosystem collapse.”

-Ghislaine Llewellyn, World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

A plastic world

Plastic transformed our lives. It’s affected everything from clothing and cooking to engineering and product design. Plastic completely changed the fishing industry. Rope nets were replaced by stronger, cheaper, more durable nylon plastic that produces higher yields than traditional nets.

Many types of plastic are designed to last. For a very long time. And nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today. The plastic straws we so vehemently oppose will take up to 200 years to degrade. Fishing gear can take up to 600 years.

NOAA/Woods Hole Sea Grant

Ocean plastic pollution is expected to grow fourfold by 2050, and by 2100 there could be 50 times more microplastics. Many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction, with 88% of marine species negatively impacted by plastic pollution. It’s estimated that up to 90% of seabirds and over 50% of sea turtles ingest plastic. 

The last straw 

Before the ban, the UK consumed 8.5 billion plastic straws per year. The U.S. is thought to have consumed 500 million plastic straws per day.

A 2015 study by the University of Georgia calculated that nearly nine million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans and coastlines each year. Yet plastic straws accounted for 0.025%. So why’d straws become the biggest environmental movement of 2018?

The war on straws saw every major company pledging to ditch plastic straws. And for a while, we applauded their efforts. By 2020, Starbucks, the world’s largest food company, had removed plastic straws from all its stores. The replacement? A strawless lid – made of plastic. The new lids use far more plastic than straws which left many of us rolling our eyes.

Meanwhile, replacement biodegradable paper products come with their own issues. Paper production requires huge amounts of energy and emits harmful greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases raise sea temperatures and levels leading to global changes in climate patterns. Deforestation means fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Soil runoff flows into rivers and oceans, adding nutrients to the water — you can have too much of a good thing. This runoff irreparably damages delicate ecosystems like coral reefs, autotrophic organisms, and seagrasses. A 2021 study links deforestation and risks of ocean ecosystem collapse.

National Geographic revealed that banning plastic straws wouldn’t make a significant improvement. Banning straws doesn’t truly reduce pollution because straws are a symptom of a much larger problem.

Imagine you have a burst pipe. Water’s gushing from the pipe and flooding your home. Further down, there’s a tiny crack leaking a minuscule amount of water. Dealing with the deluge is a big job, so you slap some tape on the little crack and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

That’s what the plastic straw ban was for our oceans. We ignored the flood of plastic spewing into the ocean in favour of performative activism that made us feel good about ourselves. It feels noble to replace straws with paper or bamboo, but ultimately, it’s a vanity project. Banning straws doesn’t make a difference – what good is a paper straw in a plastic cup, or a paper cup coated in wax that can’t be recycled? How do we save marine life when over 2.5 trillion wild fish are caught each year? When 50 million sharks and 300,000 cetaceans are killed as a result of bycatch?

So, what did the plastic straw ban really do? 

The plastic straw ban raised awareness of plastic waste pollution.

It got us talking about our consumer choices and how much blame should go to the system that encouraged such mindless pollution. We started to think more about plastics and what we, and industries, need to do to protect our environment. We held McDonald’s and Starbucks and Nestle accountable.

But there was one industry no one was pointing fingers at — fishing.

“For every pound of tuna we’re taking out of the ocean, we’re putting two pounds of plastic in the ocean.”

– Sherry Lippiatt, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The silent killer

Something more frightening than plastic haunts our oceans.

Right whales. Grey seals. Humpback whales. Minke whales. Lemon sharks. Bottlenose dolphins. Green turtles. Humboldt penguins. Stingrays. These are just a few of the estimated 650,000 creatures needlessly killed each year.

Despite growing awareness of plastic pollution in the last decade, culminating in single-use plastic bans, ocean plastic pollution is getting worse. Plastic plagues every corner of the ocean, making up 80% of all marine debris. In some areas, plastic outnumbers sea life by 6:1.

“If the current trend continues, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.”

-Ellen MacArthur Foundation

In 2021, a study by the Pelagic Research Group, Hawaii Pacific University, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of California, Santa Barbara revealed that over 100 million pounds of plastic enters our oceans each year from discarded or lost fishing gear. Equivalent to 285 blue whales.

Nets, lines, ropes, crab pots, buoys, fish traps – remnants of the global fishing industry that litter the ocean. This discarded fishing gear is known as ghost gear. Identified as a major issue and the deadliest form of marine plastic.

46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) consists of ghost gear. A WWF report states that 5.7% of all fishing nets, 8.6% of all traps, and 29% of all fishing lines are lost around the world each year. Those numbers may seem small, but the scale of industrial fishing is huge. Almost five million fishing vessels are currently operating. Some of these vessels have nets up to 120,000 Sq meters that are designed to catch around 250 tons of fish. 

CCN Scotland

Using weight to measure the impact doesn’t substantiate the scale of the problem.
If all that lost gear were fishing line, it would stretch to the moon and back more than five times.”

-Eric Gilman, marine research scientist, Hawaii Pacific University

Researchers from the University of Tasmania and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation estimate annual losses of:

  • 78,000 square km of purse seine nets and gillnets
  • 218 square km of trawl nets
  • 740,000 km of longline mainlines
  • 15.5 million km of branch lines
  • 13 billion hooks
  • 25 million pots and traps

Ghost gear indiscriminately catches wildlife. It entangles marine mammals, sharks, seabirds, marine reptiles and fish, subjecting them to slow, painful deaths. When ghost gear drifts into deep water, it entangles fish and smaller mammals. These act as bait, attracting and snaring larger predators. As it drifts, other discarded gear may become entwined. Eventually, it becomes so heavy that it sinks. Once on the seabed, scavengers begin feeding on the captured wildlife. Coupled with natural decomposition, the weight reduces, and so, the ghost gear floats to the surface where the cycle continues. 

Under certain conditions, ghost gear can continue to catch and kill sea life for years.  

In the last 25 years, the number of species affected by ghost gear, either by entanglement or ingestion, has doubled.

In 2018, over 300 Olive Ridley sea turtles (the same species that kicked off the war on plastic) were found in a discarded fishing net off the coast of Mexico. Ghost gear is responsible for 136,000 marine mammal deaths each year. Up to 100 fish are estimated to be killed per 100 square metres of ghost net.

Ghost gear doesn’t just affect marine animals. On the Isle of Rùm in Scotland, stags were discovered with fishing gear caught in their antlers. Two died after becoming entangled in fishing rope.

BBC Scotland

The environmental, economic, and social impacts of ghost gear are numerous. Marine habitats, such as coral reefs and vegetation, suffer degradation. Indiscriminate fishing causes fish stocks, that many subsistence fishers rely on, to be depleted to the point of functional extinction.

Ghost gear releases toxins, distributes microalgae that cause harmful algal blooms, disrupts navigation and damages vessels, poses at-sea safety hazards, and releases microplastics. Microplastics are everywhere. They’re in the seafood we eat, the air we breathe, and our bloodstream.

The Ocean Cleanup published research from samples gathered in the GPGP that suggests most fishing waste can be traced back to five industrialized fishing nations: Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States. Ghost gear has many causes, such as snags on rocks, entanglement with other fishing gear, and extreme weather where gear must be abandoned for safety reasons.

We all became incensed by the viral video of an Olive Ridley sea turtle having a straw removed from its nose. Of course we did. Turtles are cute. We don’t want them to die. But those same turtles we so desperately wanted to save are being caught in ghost gear at an alarming rate, held below the surface where they slowly drown. Why aren’t we demanding better for the very creatures we claim to love so much?

What now?

“The focus on individual products takes our focus away from more necessary discussions.”

-Steve Russell, American Chemistry Council

Straws and single-use plastics are low hanging fruit. These bans make a negligible difference. They’re vanity projects. They’re an easy (albeit tiny) solution to a huge problem that doesn’t have a single, simple answer.

The plastic straw ban was never really about straws. It was about pointing out how prevalent plastic is in our lives and holding us, governments, and companies responsible. Plastic straws should be treated as a gateway plastic. Feel-good movements need to be launching pads for something meaningful, something that can make a difference to the oceans and the creatures who call it home.

The solution to eliminating ghost gear isn’t as simple as skipping the straw in your next iced coffee. There’s no quick fix that’ll see our oceans free of lost fishing gear.

In 2019, the United Nations outlined measures to reduce ghost gear, including educating the fishing industry on problems associated with ghost gear and providing incentives for fishers to report lost equipment and retrieve nets they find at sea.

Collection facilities at ports can help fishers recycle old, damaged, or retrieved gear. The Ocean Recovery Project will be rolled out in harbours across Scotland and North East England. A partnership between the Torbay Cleaner Coasts Initiative and the Port of Brixham saw huge support from local fishers who brought in old and retrieved nets. Odyssey Innovation’s Net Regeneration Scheme, in partnership with UK supermarket Morrisons, has installed fishing net collection points at 10 ports in South West England. Currently, there are no planned incentives to recycle ropes, creel fishing gear, longlines, or hand lines.

Meanwhile, the NetTAG  project aims to track and recover lost equipment by fitting transponders to traps and nets.

Much like the plastic straw ban, these schemes hold the wrong people accountable. Accountability is placed entirely on artisanal fishers. Yet again, industrial fishing flies under the radar.

Governments invest significant amounts of money in fishing, so they’re reluctant to target the very industry they prop up. They make a nice profit, too. In the UK, industrial fishing is worth £921 million; the U.S. $11.5 billion; Japan ¥728 billion (approximately £4.5 billion); China ¥1.45 trillion (approximately £180 billion). But if there’s one thing 2018’s anti-straw sentiment proved, it’s that when we make enough noise corporations and governments have no choice but to sit up and listen.

In just one year, public outrage caused plastic straws to disappear from restaurants, shops, and our homes. Why has ghost gear been pushed under the rug for so long?

Fish are wildlife and should be treated as such. We must vote with our wallets, and reduce our seafood consumption. Maybe then the fishing industry will be forced to clean up its act.

Blue Planet Society is a global pressure group campaigning to protect the world’s ocean. You can help our work by donating here.

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Blue Planet Society is a global pressure group campaigning to protect the world’s ocean. By utilising effective activism, minimising the use of resources and applying the highest ethical standards, we believe our approach is the future of marine conservation advocacy.