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The plastic tide

Sky Ocean Rescue

Thomas Moore, Science Correspondent, Sky News, asks what can be done to stem the tide of plastic that is threatening to overwhelm the world’s oceans

Almost 80 degrees north, 1200 kilometres from the nearest significant human settlement, and there’s a flip-flop floating in the sea. Nearby, tangled up in a raft of kelp, there’s a chocolate wrapper, the lid from a plastic bottle and the remains of a shredded nylon fishing net. We’re filming on the northern tip of Spitsbergen, close enough to the majestic Smeerenburg glacier for our RIB to be rocked by the waves raised by the calving ice crashing into the water.

This shouldn’t be the place to find plastic. But the debris of modern life is now found in every ocean – more than five trillion pieces are being swept around the globe by the currents. The madness is that much of that plastic has been used just once, perhaps for a few minutes or even, in the case of a coffee stirrer, for just a few seconds. Yet in the ocean the plastic is likely to take decades or centuries to break down and disappear. That’s why we launched Sky Ocean Rescue at the start of 2017. We wanted to sound the alarm over what was happening to our seas.

Highlighting the issue

Ghost fishing gear

Another worldwide source of plastics in the oceans – ‘Ghost fishing gear’ – an abandoned trammel net on the seabed off the Atlantic coast of Spain. Photo: © Oceana / Enrique Talled

There are so many threats: climate change is making the water warmer and more acidic, fishing stocks are dwindling and chemical runoff from land is building up in the food chain. All are important. But judging from the response to the campaign, the public really understands the plastic problem.

A shopping bag floating on the surface is easily identifiable as household rubbish. And it’s there because of somebody’s carelessness. We are all part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution.

We are campaigning for a rethink on single-use plastic. Small changes in our lifestyles – giving up plastic straws, for example – all make a difference. Manufacturers have a responsibility too. Does a cotton bud have to have a plastic stalk, for example? We filmed hundreds of the little blue tubes that had slipped through the sewage system and washed up on the banks of the River Thames. How many others ended up in the North Sea to become fish food?

Governments can also drive change

In Norway a small deposit on plastic bottles, which is returned when people bring back their empties to the shop, has resulted in 96 per cent being recycled. Contrast that with the UK where every day 16 million bottles – almost half of all those sold – are dumped in landfill, or littered on land or at sea.

At Sky News we have produced two documentaries and regular news reports from around the globe highlighting the issue. This has been backed by initiatives by other parts of the Sky family. At the Oval’s 100th test match we handed out refillable bottles and installed water coolers, reducing the number of singleuse bottles consumed by 60 per cent.

A plastic whale

Norway is at the mercy of currents that wash up rubbish from across Europe.

Norway is at the mercy of currents that wash up rubbish from across Europe. Photo: Sky News

Filming for A Plastic Whale, the second of our campaign documentaries, really opened our eyes to the magnitude of the problem. We followed the story of a beaked whale that died in Bergen, Norway, with 30 bags and plastic fragments in its stomach. There was barely any room left for food. This was a species that fed a mile below the waves. That’s where scientists believe the whale encountered the bags, suspended in the water column. In the darkness it simply confused the bags for food. The whale underlined how plastic is now found from the sea surface to the sea bed, and how it’s harming marine creatures.

Our campaign hasn’t been all doom and gloom, though. The death of the whale sparked an extraordinary response in Norway. The country is a victim of geography – the Gulf Stream deposits large amounts of plastic on its 100,000-kilometre coastline. At first it was a handful of people from Bergen who began cleaning the local bays to stop the debris being washed back out on the tide and consumed by marine wildlife. But the clean-up has become a mass movement, stretching the length of the country, with the government stumping up millions of kroner to fund heavy-lift helicopters and boats to remove plastic from remote areas.

Norway has good reason to be concerned. Farmed salmon is one of its biggest exports, and it cannot afford for the fish to be seen by consumers as contaminated by plastic. It’s a justified concern. Tiny particles called microplastics are already in our food chain.

In Belgium, scientists showed us an x-ray CT scan of a mussel that clearly showed microplastics in its body tissues. The average portion of moules marinière contains 90 tiny pieces of plastic, they say.

And because plastic is accumulating in the oceans – and filtered by mussels and other shellfish – calculations suggest that by the end of the century people who regularly eat seafood could be consuming 780,000 pieces of plastic a year, absorbing up to 4000 fragments into their body tissues with unknown consequences for their health.

We’ve had extraordinary engagement from our viewers. Some are concerned about health, others about wildlife. One short video – again of the plastic whale – was viewed by 25 million people on Facebook in just one week. A viewer in Preston was motivated by the campaign to gather a group to go to Norway to help with the clean-up. Another, in Scotland, was inspired to remove plastic from his local beaches.

Political and industrial responses

The campaign is having a wider impact too.

Members of Parliament on the Environmental Audit Committee have launched an enquiry into single-use plastics. Its chair, Mary Creagh, and the oceans minister, Therese Coffey, have both taken part in campaign events.

Industry, too, is responding. The Scottish government has recently announced a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans. A major stumbling block had been opposition from Coca-Cola, the biggest soft-drink manufacturer. But it has now done a U-turn, and campaigners who have been lobbying the company for many years say pressure from Sky Ocean Rescue was instrumental in prompting the rethink.

Keeping up the pressure

The campaign is far from over. An upcoming documentary will look at our poor record on recycling. There will be more initiatives to raise awareness. And we’ll keep up the pressure on government and industry.

We can’t ignore the plastic problem. Estimates suggest that 8–12 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year – that’s the equivalent of a rubbish truck of the stuff being dumped into the sea every minute.

It’s just not sustainable. We all need to act.

For further information on the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign, visit https://skyoceanrescue.com