The most common types of marine debris are: food wrappers, bottle caps, straws, grocery bags, beverage bottles and cigarette butts. Five out of these items are made of plastic.
Marine and coastal species – fish, seabirds, marine mammals and reptiles – are affected by marine debris mostly through ingestion or entanglement. According to the report, 40 per cent of cetaceans, and 44 per cent of seabird species are affected by marine debris ingestion. The effect of ingestion is not always understood, as many ingest microplastics – little pieces or fragments that are less than five millimetres in diameter.
The problem with plastic
Plastic is a very common material in our daily lives – eight per cent of global oil production is used to make plastic items. However, it is hard to dispose of and many times is discarded after a single use – think of plastic bags to carry groceries, wrapping for packages, etc.
Annual plastic production has substantially increased over the last 60 years, from 1.5 million tonnes in the 1950s to 288 million tonnes in 2012, with approximately two-thirds of production occurring in East Asia, Europe and North America. Current global estimates for plastic waste indicate that 192 coastal countries generated 275 million tonnes of waste in 2010, of which between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes (1.8 – 4.6 per cent) entered the marine environment.
The economic cost
Marine debris has an adverse effect in the commercial fishing, shipping and tourism industries. The report also notes that previous research places the cost of pollution caused by marine debris at $13 billion.
Some of the cost includes repairing vessel damage, clean-up, and decrease in tourism revenues due to polluted beaches. There are also social impacts such as direct, short-term human health issues (injuries, entanglement and navigational hazards) and long-term impacts on quality of life.
The report makes recommendations for governments and citizens to reduce marine debris. Some of them include: reducing plastic packaging, introducing fees for single-use items, banning items like plastic bags and microbeads, and supporting innovation for new materials that are fully biodegradable. In addition, governments should increase awareness of the impacts of marine debris among their citizens, and facilitate recycling and reusing options, among other measures.