Making Our Shores Plastic-Free
By Sharon Arnolda
“Published and controversial research estimates that we ingest a credit card’s worth – 5 grams – of microplastics every week”
– WWF South Africa
Micro plastics are particles of plastic that are less than 5mm in diameter. They come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. Micro beads – a type of micro plastics that has been used in the beauty industry for over 50 years as exfoliants in cleansers, toothpaste and so on – are a type of manufactured polythene plastic that can easily pass through our water filtration system and end up in oceans and lakes; a threat to aquatic life and in turn to human kind.
Recent attention has been drawn to the issue of plastic polluting the environment on a global level with attention finally being given to the problem of large-scale pollution caused by plastic in the ocean. In this light, as a country surrounded by the ocean, what are we doing to protect our island home?
That’s where the good people of Pearl Protectors and Youth against Debris (a part of the Active Citizens Project of the British Council) are rising to the challenge.
The two groups of social workers got together to organise a shallow sea cleanup at Modara with volunteers from both organisations participating in the event. The cleanup resulted in clearing 312 kg of plastic waste ranging from plastic packaging, discarded fishing nets, sachets, glass, aluminium, synthetic foam, medical waste, and hard plastic which were all handed for recycling. Further, Youth against Debris also donated safety boots and gloves which can be used in proposed future cleanups of the Pearl Protectors.
While groups such as them strive to keep the oceans clean it is important to take a look at how the plastic gets into the ocean and what we can do to protect our oceans.
How does plastic make its way into the ocean?
Some of the plastic originates from ships that lose cargo at sea, abandoned plastic nets, and longlines, and make up about 10 per cent of plastic waste in the sea. Marine aquaculture also contributes to the problem to a certain degree but a vast majority of the waste that ends up in the ocean comes from land. Weather conditions and high winds cause waste along the coastlines to be swiftly hauled out by the tides. The ocean also serves as an endpoint for thousands of rivers and waterways which carry tonnes of loose garbage.
What happens to plastic once it’s in the ocean?
In addition to the thousands of marine animals getting entangled in pieces of plastic, limiting their movement, their ability to feed, and causing injuries and infections, the less visible effects of plastic pollution is caused by plastic being broken down to microplastic over time which makes it virtually impossible to retrieve.
Floating plastic also accumulates microbes and algae on its surface, causing sea creatures to consume them. Once ingested it can pierce internal organs and cause fatal intestinal blockages.
What’s worse is that microplastic looks similar to plankton which is generally food for the species at the end of the food chain. Plastic is infiltrating our entire ecosystem, research further shows that organisms as tiny as polyps and corals regularly consume microplastics.
This is the food we eat, the water we drink, and the future of the planet!
What is the situation in Sri Lanka?
In 2018 after a period of about 40 years a survey commissioned by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) supported by Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (IMR) revealed that four - fifths of small pieces of plastic waste in Sri Lanka’s territorial water arrived via rivers and canals. The survey further highlighted that the seas around the island were polluted by second category microplastics (such as packaging material).
The severity of microplastic contamination has resulted in close to 80 per cent depletion in fish stocks. In addition the increasing number of fishermen and overfishing has put immense pressure on the country’s fish stock, risking the availability of the country’s primary source of protein.
What can the community do to protect our seas?
1. Limit the use of single-use plastic and/or plastic in general
There are several alternatives to the plastic we use on a daily basis, from reusable bags and bottles to edible food containers. It’s imperative that each and every person makes an effort to reduce their individual use of plastic to combat the issue of plastic use at a community level.
2. Dispose of garbage properly
The country is surrounded by beautiful beaches that we are lucky to be able to enjoy. However, it is the duty of every person to make sure that nothing but footprints are left behind following your adventures wherever they may be.
There are initiatives taken to place trash cans in and around most beaches/ sidewalks and everywhere in between, and it is a simple ask – just put the garbage where it belongs before you end up vicariously eating the plastic you recklessly threw away.
3. Exfoliate naturally!
Did you know that there are so many alternatives to microbeads found in cosmetic products?
In addition to being more eco friendly these natural options are also much better for your skin and tend to do the job better than the manmade tiny polythene balls polluting our oceans.
This is unfortunately not a problem that can be solved by a only small group of people working towards making the world cleaner. The responsibility falls on each individual to reduce their carbon footprint, to leave this place even a bit better than they found it.