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The plastic time bomb


Dr Abigail Entwistle

Director of Conservation Science and Design at Fauna & Flora International

We have long known that plastic poses a direct risk to wildlife; however, the true horror story of plastic pollution lies in the ocean, the destination point for so much of our rubbish over the years.

We talk about the plastic islands of the Pacific gyre, but the reality is even more pernicious and insidious: look below the waves and you will discover a deep ‘plastic smog’ of tiny microplastic particles that could prove even more devastating to the marine ecosystem than the surface rubbish.

The plastic in our oceans ought never to have got there in the first place – perhaps ought not to have even been manufactured at all.
Sir David Attenborough

Because microplastics – and the toxins they contain and attract – can be eaten by even the smallest marine creatures, they allow these toxins to enter the food chain. Microplastics have been found in everything from krill and mussels to baleen whales, seabirds and even crabs from the deepest ocean trenches.

But we are faced with a ticking time bomb. All the plastic rubbish that continues to pour into the oceans will break down to form the microplastics of the future, adding to that plastic smog.

The volume of plastic currently reaching the sea needs to be reduced as quickly as possible. This is not just about better waste management in the most polluting countries, it also requires a global change to our culture of plastics use – this is an international phenomenon that needs multilateral cooperation and clear corporate leadership.

Only by fundamentally changing the way we design, use and recapture plastic can we truly address the scale of plastic pollution and forestall a future where microplastics smother our oceans.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been sounding the alarm about the potential impacts of microplastics since 2009.

We initially focused on reducing microplastics that are directly washed into our seas and can immediately be eaten by marine life, such as the microbeads used in toiletries. Five years of painstaking research into the ingredients of over 1,500 products provided the evidence with which to engage manufacturers and retailers, and ultimately make the case for a UK ban on microbeads. Buoyed by this success, we are continuing to address other direct sources of microplastic pollution, including pre-production pellets (nurdles) from plastics manufacture and microplastic fibres released from synthetic clothing and fishing nets.

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