The plastic waste of humans has been found as far away as Antarctica. The plastic does not completely breakdown. In fact, it may take hundreds of thousands of years for the plastic to degrade; however, the sunlight and salt water do act on the plastics releasing toxic chemicals. The chemicals then enter the food chain… eventually ending up in humans.
ELEANOR HALL: Scientists had thought it was one part of the planet that was free of pollution from plastics. But European researchers on a two-year expedition have found a disturbing amount of plastic pollution in the Antarctic.
They say the level of plastic pollution is so high that toxins are being absorbed by fish and making their way into the human food chain.
The findings coincide with a claim by the American oceanographer Captain Charles Moore, that ocean plastic is now a bigger problem than climate change.
Miriam Hall has our report.
MIRIAM HALL: For two years the French scientific vessel, the Tara sailed the globe, using specialized nets to trawl for tiny pieces of plastic. The expedition was to ‘take the pulse’ of the ocean at the start of the 21st century and the scientists on board were horrified by what they found.
Dr Chris Bowler is the scientific coordinator of Tara Oceans.
CHRIS BOWLER: We didn’t expect to find such high amounts of plastic in the Arctic because we consider this sort of area to be a pretty pristine environment sort of far away from the dirty reach of our hands, you know, as mankind.
So finding such high levels which are sort of similar to average levels around the globe in the oceans around the world was a big surprise, very alarming.
MIRIAM HALL: Dr Chris Bowler has told the BBC the scientists found up to 40,000 fragments of plastic waste in every square kilometre of sea.
While it’s difficult to say where exactly that plastic is coming from, Dr Chris Bowler says it is countries in the southern hemisphere which are most likely to blame.
CHRIS BOWLER: We would imagine that its coming from the southern hemisphere because knowing how the circulation of the currents move in the oceans, it’s probably fair to believe that it is coming from these southern countries.
MIRIAM HALL: Dr Bowler also believes that toxins from these pieces of plastic will end up being consumed by humans.
CHRIS BOWLER: By reacting slowly with the ultraviolet light of the sun and the salt in the sea water, chemicals are released which are toxic, phallates, phenol molecules and so on which get taken up by the plankton because plankton is the base of the food chain, these will get up into the fish and then ultimately end up on our tables again.
So we are sort of poisoning ourselves, sadly.
MIRIAM HALL: American oceanographer Charles Moore has labelled plastic pollution as a bigger problem than climate change, and one that must be fixed.
CHARLES MOORE: It’s murderous to marine ecosystems. It is acting as both predator and prey. As predator it is tangling things up and killing them. We estimate just in the north Pacific alone 100,000 marine mammals dying every year tangled up in this stuff.
MIRIAM HALL: Captain Moore is the founder of California’s Algalita Marine Research Institute.
In 1997 he was sailing between Hawaii and the Californian coast, when he discovered what is now known as ‘The Pacific Garbage Patch’. That’s an enormous whirlpool of plastic marine debris, which is shifted and accumulated by currents in the Pacific Ocean.
Captain Moore is now in Australia to start what he calls, ‘The Plastic Conversation’.
CHARLES MOORE: It’s a question I get wherever I go on this tour is – are we a little better or a little worse than our neighbor up the road or down the road and frankly I can find you absolutely horrible examples in Australia of plastic waste clogging your waterways.
MIRIAM HALL: And he says it’s not just marine creatures that are hurt by plastic in water.
CHARLES MOORE: The mutton bird, the shearwaters here in Australia used to, five years ago, have 70 per cent with plastic in them. Now it is 100 per cent of all birds and these are the most common seabirds in the world, the shearwaters, 100 per cent of them have eaten plastic. There is starting to be population level effects.
MIRIAM HALL: Captain Moore estimates up to 100 million tonnes of plastic washed into the world’s oceans in the five decades between 1950, and 2000.
He says that figure is likely to have more than doubled since then, and time to act is now.
CHARLES MOORE: Do we have to wait for a population as numerous as the millions and millions of mutton birds to crash before we do something about this problem?
ELEANOR HALL: That is oceanographer Captain Charles Moore, ending that report from Miriam Hall.
“So we are sort of poisoning ourselves, sadly.”