In January 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her plan to tackle the growing tide of plastic waste filling the ocean. The proposals were designed to help the United Kingdom catch up with other European countries like Finland who have led the way in plastic reduction for a number of years. In her bid to put Britain at the forefront of the war on, what she called, “one of the great environmental scourges of our time”, the PM unveiled policies including plastics-free aisles in supermarkets and a tax on takeaway containers.
The 25-year strategy was met with criticism from environmental groups, with Greenpeace calling them “a missed opportunity”, whilst “wooly promises” were chided by Friends of the Earth. Ideas such as a plastic bottle return scheme and a charge on takeaway coffee cups were not included, but Environment Secretary Michael Gove said on BBC Radio 4 at the time that “We’re also, I have to say, taking action on a wide variety of ideas already.”
Regardless of the relative merits of the government’s plan to tackle plastic pollution, they reflect the growing urgency of the unfolding crisis facing the ocean. Years of doom-laden predictions and depressing statistics are beginning to get through to people, and to governments, as the truth, and, thus, yielding real policy effects. In the UK, at least, this process was aided by documentaries including the wildly popular and much watched Blue Planet II, fronted by Sir David Attenborough.
A whopping 8 million tonnes of plastic is left unrecycled across the world every year. That is an incredibly difficult number to imagine. It means that in 10 years there could be well over 80 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. If you were to pile all of that up, it would be far, far larger than any man made structure on Earth. Bigger than the Burj Khalifa, bigger than the Empire State Building, bigger than the Eiffel Tower.
And some of the eye catching facts circling about the looming threat to our oceans are truly terrifying. Every day, about 8 million items of plastic enter the ocean. Plastic consistently makes up 60-90% of all marine debris studied. 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, and an incredible one million seabirds are killed by plastic every year. Recent scientific studies have found plastic in the bodies of 100% of deceased marine turtles, 59% of dead whales, 36% of dead seals, and 40% of dead seabirds that were surveyed.
These facts, whilst mind boggling in scale, are just a snapshot of the monumental challenge posed to our world in the next couple of decades. As a society, we are just beginning to take the very real danger plastic poses seriously, but it may be too late. To those of us who love scuba diving, this is not just an existential crisis for our planet’s beautiful and fragile ecosystems, but a danger to the joy we get from seeing the wonders the ocean holds. We all have our role to play in passing on plastic and adapting a world that needs all of us to take an interest in its future survival.