Over seven billion tonnes of plastic has been created in the last century – of that 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated and a disgraceful 79% has been disposed in the natural environment. The sheer scale of the problem is hard to visualise – let alone solve. It is simply overwhelming. How can we approach such a vast problem – how do we save wildlife from that much plastic?
Well – like a medic overwhelmed with casualties, we triage. This means we must target the most deadly plastic first – if we can’t remove it all we must focus on the most lethal items and prioritise their removal from the environment.
SOME PLASTIC IS DEADLIER THAN OTHERS
In an analysis assessing over seventy scientific studies – including data from 80 species. They found that different types of plastic cause different problems.
Researchers have found that five items cause more harm than any other types of plastic: lost fishing nets, lost fishing hooks, plastic bags, balloons and plastic cutlery.
Lost fishing gear, including nets, lines and tackle, unsurprisingly seeing its designed to catch and entangle marine life remained incredibly deadly even after it was lost..
Flexible plastics – aka plastic bags and packaging cause gut blockage – and were responsible for deaths over all animal groups – from seabirds to seals. Whilst hard sharp plastic – particularly plastic forks, spoons and broken stirrers – pierces animals guts, causing agonising deaths.
So which do we target on our plastic recovery missions when we cant take it all?
LOST FISHING GEAR IS DESIGNED TO KILL
ACTION: Target Fishing Gear First on Beach Cleans
We prioritise lost fishing gear first – hooks, nets and pots – as it is lethal even in its second haunting life as ghost gear.
Many fisheries have a huge rate of loss – losing each year on average just under 10% of their nets, 30% of their lines and hooks and estimated 40%+ of all lobster and crab pots.
Until we have new laws that mandate higher quality loss-resistant gear – or revert fisher’s to natural fibres and materials that rot away as was used only 50 years ago – we have a ever-growing gyre of lethal gear growing in the marine environment.
Targeting any net fragments or rope loops stops it strangling or entangling marine life. Removing hooks stops animals suffering when snagged or dying when ingesting these items that mimic their prey. Taking out whole nets – particularly monofilament – stops it continuing to catch prey ever more and removing buoyed lines and pots stops them dragging up/down whales and cetaceans.
PLASTIC FILMS & BALLOONS
ACTION: Next priority is flexible films of plastic – aka bags, balloons and packaging.
Flexible film-like plastics – ranging from the aforementioned scourge of plastic bags (whether reusable or not) to miles of ground-sheeting used by gardeners and farmers – is one of the most common items found on the marine shore. Only occurring less than fishing gear here in Cornwall.
Whilst plastic bag fees have reduced the number of plastic bags leaving supermarkets – they’ve only increased the weight of plastic leaving supermarkets and shops – as shoppers by 1 reusable thick plastic bag for the 3 disposable ones they used to on average (and on top these ‘eco’ plastic thick bags pose even more of a risk as they persist far longer when they are thrown away). This scourge is still with us.
When animals eat this type of plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation.
Balloons and condoms are relatively rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would be a massive step. Until then – despite their grimness – they need to be removed (gloves are a must guys and gals).
PLASTIC CUTLERY AND SHARP PLASTICS
ACTION: Always remove any sharp plastics or sharp piece of any material
Sharp pieces of plastic can also snag in animals skin and pierce the gut of animals, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.
Also it just sucks to see a kid or dog have their day out at the beach ruined by a painful foot.
BIGGER IS BETTER WHEN REMOVING PLASTIC
ACTIONS: Focus on removing big items before they breakdown
Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower priority for beach cleans, as they cause significantly fewer deaths and are simply more difficult to collect (though the amazing people at Nurdle are changing this!).
THE TAKEAWAY - WE HAVE TO TRIAGE
ACTION: Remember when your feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of plastic – Triage.
This means if you cant get it all you should target the most deadly plastic first: focusing on the most lethal items and prioritising their removal from the environment. We hope this helps wildlife and all the amazing people who are out there removing plastic from our shores keep up the good fight – if you found it helpful or insightful please share this post and our infographic below.
And a Happy Plastic-Free July!