Anyone that has travelled will have seen the impact plastic pollution is having on both remote islands and populated destinations. No matter where we’re travelling, the devastating image of streets or beaches lined with plastic water bottles and plastic bags is too familiar.
You may have seen Henderson Island in the news a lot over the last year. Henderson Island is an uninhabited island in the remote South Pacific, and has the highest density of plastic rubbish anywhere in the world. A staggering 37.7 million items of marine debris, weighing 17.6 tonnes, covers the island, with an average of 3,570 new pieces of rubbish washing up onto the beach each day. So how is that rubbish ending up there? And what can we do about it?
What is marine debris?
Marine debris is the term used for man-made items that are ending up in the ocean. This can be plastic bottles, straws, cutlery, commercial or recreational fishing items, packaging, furniture, white goods and clothing. Marine debris is a massive global problem that is injuring and killing marine wildlife, affecting coastal habits and environments and also negatively affecting human health. Approximately 8 million tonnes of marine debris enters the ocean every year and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
Where does it come from?
Plastic enters the ocean from a variety of sources. Near big cities most of the rubbish entering the ocean comes from land; litter is washed down storm water drains, either from careless consumers having littered or rubbish blowing out of bins. In remote areas, marine debris is washed onto shore from ocean currents, so the rubbish often comes from every corner of the globe. In a massive clean-up we were involved with in the remote Cape York Peninsula a few years ago, we were finding rubbish from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii and Japan. Henderson Island for example, mentioned earlier, is near the centre of an ocean current, so it collects rubbish from passing boats and South America.
Marine debris also ends up on land from recreational boats, fisheries or cargo ships; sometimes accidentally washed overboard or intentionally dumped. Strong trade winds can also contribute to more plastic ending up on remote islands.
Why is it harmful?
There are many ways in which this marine debris is detrimental to the environment, wildlife and humans. Abandoned nets, fishing line, rope and other similar items are very dangerous for birds, turtles, dolphins, stingrays, seals and other wildlife. These animals can become entangled in the line or rope, suffering injuries, suffocation and even starving to death. Large fishing nets, called ghost nets, can remain floating around the ocean for years, causing hundreds of deaths. Marine animals can also often mistake plastic bags for jelly fish and birds are attracted to bring coloured plastic remnants. Once they’ve ingested the plastic, the animals have a false feeling of fullness which can lead to them starving to death or dying from internal injuries.
Marine debris can also be incredibly harmful to habitats; discarded fishing gear and heavier objects can break coral and marine plants can become entangled and suffocate under plastic bags and other fishing remnants.
What can I do to help?
It doesn’t matter if you live five minutes from the beach or 5,000km, we are all impacted by the health of our ocean and we can all help reduce plastic pollution. Land and the ocean are inextricably connected through waterways, so no matter where we live, changing our consumer habits and cleaning up our local environment will impact positively on the ocean.
The less rubbish we produce the less that can end up in our ocean, so one of the biggest things we can do is reduce our use of plastic. Start with using reusable drink bottles, coffee cups, cutlery and metal straws. You can also buy food at bulk food stores and store in jars and compost your food scraps at home.
There are a number of great clean-up groups and initiatives around Australia working to reduce plastic pollution. Try checking out Tangaroa Blue, Clean Coast Collective, Seaside Scavenge, Sea Shepherd, Positive Change for Marine Life or Surfrider Foundation. If there aren’t any local groups in your area, try organising your own clean-up! We can all make a massive difference if we pick up stray rubbish when we’re down at the beach or park as well.
Reducing marine debris has always been at the heart of Tasi Travels, and earlier this year we launched our new initiative 'Travel With Purpose.’ These small group trips to Timor-Leste are built around positive impact and we continue to work with the local community to clean up the beaches and reduce plastic pollution. To learn more about Travel With Purpose and express interest for future trips click here.