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Are we drowning in a sea of plastics?

Ago. 14, 2018

A warning from Malta's Environment and Resources Chairman about shocking findings from a recently published marine litter investigation. Results showed a far higher distribution of plastics both inshore and offshore than expected. The economic implications of this plastic in our marine environment are enormous.

The world has come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s, when plastics were presented as the wonder materials that would sustain our way of life. Now ‘plastics’ has become a dirty word and are depicted as the culprit of most of our environmental problems in the sea.

Suddenly, we realise we are drowning in a sea of plastics, that much of our seafood may be tainted with microplastics and that the environmental as well as the economic implications of this plastic problem are enormous. But, to be honest, it is our short-sightedness, greed and the urge to take a free lunch that should be of concern.

Over eight million tonnes of plastics are finding their way into our oceans.

It is estimated that well over €600 million is spent every year to clean up the mess of plastics and other litter from European beaches and coasts. On the global scale, the damage to marine life may amount to over €11 billion. If we are to face up to this problem, we need to understand its scale and its dynamics, including locally.

We tend to view the ocean as an endless, self-cleaning dustbin. It is not. Whatever we throw into it somehow returns to haunt us. Much of the plastic materials are not really biodegradable but rather fragment into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are less than 5mm in size.

They may be taken up by living organisms and may also carry a cocktail of pollutants on their surfaces. Larger plastics may entangle turtles and accumulate in the guts of fish and other forms of life, with dire consequences.

But what do we know about this problem? Over the past five years, the Department of Biology and other entities at the University of Malta and the ERA have been producing some preliminary results in their coastal areas.

Here is a snapshot of the results.

During 2016/17, a detailed investigation of floating marine litter in coastal and inshore waters in Malta and Gozo was conducted, partly in connection with our EU obligations for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Plastics amounted to 86 per cent of all the items of floating litter recorded. Offshore waters exhibited a highly patchy distribution of such litter. The overall mean levels of floating litter for the offshore coastal areas in summer were around 400 items/km2 and twice as much in the winter.

This suggests that most of the floating litter in coastal waters does not necessarily originate from seasonal activities, such as those related to tourism, which are more intense in summer.

As expected, the floating litter densities in harbours and bays were higher, by a factor of two to five times for summer and winter. In fact, the coastal part of Malta that apparently has the highest densities is the main harbour and its approaches.

The Environment and Resources Authority in Malta is committed to understanding even better the nature and extent of this problem and doing something about it, but the prevention and cleanup of our world's waters ultimately needs to be a collective effort between all Countries.

Our mission at Water Witch is simple, provide solutions to help rid the planet's oceans of pollution.  If we can work together, we can achieve it.