Menu Close

The blue marble

Take a stand on Oceans Day and de-plastify your life

Today the UN celebrates Oceans Day and we have a proposition for you: leave your plastic life behind.

The introduction of plastics in the 1950’s was celebrated as a huge advance, with TIME Magazine enthusiastically welcoming disposable plastic to liberate women from household chores in the article entitled “Throw Away Living” (Time Magazine, August 1, 1955).

Neuston samplers, skimming the ocean surface, are used to survey plastic pollution in the ocean Photo: Joan Costa, the 2010 Malaspina Expedition

Since then, we have plastified our lives. The alarm clock by your bed that wakes you up has a plastic case, your toothbrush is made of plastic, and you dispense soap and shampoo from plastic bottles. You remove the thin layer of plastic to open your cereal box and dispense your orange juice from a plastic bottle. And our plastified life goes on until you hit bedtime again.

But plastics carry a broad range of persistent organic pollutants (PoPs), including PCBs, flame retardants, phalates, bisphenol A and others. These POPs are added to plastic polymers as additives to confer special properties, such as UV- and thermal-resistance, rigidity, endurance and others, and heavy metals, such as lead and chromium are added to colour the plastics (Hammer et al. 2012). Once in the marine environment, they also attract oily pollutants from the surrounding water, which increase even more their load of PoPs. The loads of contaminants in plastic materials are so high that there have been appeals that plastic debris should be classified as hazardous substances (Rochman et al. 2013).

Still, it is not only humans whose lives have been plastified, we have also made it to plastify the life - and death - of marine animals. On March , 2012, a dead sperm whale, 10 m in length, was washed ashore in Granada, Spain. My colleagues from the Spanish National Research Council conducted an autopsy to find up to 18 Kg of plastic inside the whale’s stomach, including a hanger, pots, tooth paste containers, hosepipe, burlap, rope, plastic mulch, bottles, mattress, bags, ice cream, tooth paste and spray containers, and greenhouse plastic layers, among others (de Stephanis et al. in press).

Whales, turtles and seabirds are perhaps the most visible victims of death by plastic, but this extends to most marine animals; particularly those feeding on plankton, from tiny copepods (a few mm in size) to whales. They all ingest plastic particles, often causing their death. Moreover, it is not just the physical blockage of the guts by the plastics, but the load of contaminants they carry that also damage the organisms.

Since the epiphany of disposable living in the 50‘s, the global production of plastic has increased 200 fold, from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 230 in 2009 (Hammer et al. 2012). The latest statistics of the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA) indicate that 1.433,046 tons of plastics were consumed in Australia in 2010-11, of which only 20% were recycled. The good news is that consumption is showing a declining trend while recycling is increasing, but both trends are much too slow.

The US Academy of Sciences estimated the total annual input of marine debris into the oceans to be approximately 6.4 million tons, or about 5 % of total plastic production. The ocean is the ultimate sink for plastic materials, where plastic materials remain for decades, with the floating fraction entering global distribution and the heavier items littering the seabed.

During their long journey, the floating plastic items fragment and become ever smaller, so that samples of plastic materials from the open ocean are typically dominated, by mass, by particles in the 4-6 mm range, and numerically by sub-mm particles. Some of the floating particle debris is washed ashore, littering beaches. The finding of an accumulation of plastic debris floating in the NW Pacific alerted the public to the accumulation of plastic in areas of the ocean with particular oceanographic dynamics.

This triggered interest in mapping the abundance of floating plastic debris in the ocean, on which we have participated mapping plastic debris around Australia (J.R.), the Mediterranean (CM.D.) and globally, through the Malaspina 2010 Circumnavigation Expedition (which C.M.D. leads), funded by the Spanish Government.

Sample of plastic debris collected in an open ocean survey around SW Tasmania. Julia Reisser

Key findings, thus far, include confirmation of a higher density of plastic material in the proximity of Australian cities and, at the global scale, higher concentrations in the Northern Hemisphere, where consumption is greatest. The results also confirm that all five subtropical gyres of the ocean, which occupy the central areas of ocean basins to either side of the Equator, are zones of accumulation of floating plastic debris.

Our first estimates, not yet published, of the global abundance of plastic, however, yield values much lower than expected, suggesting the existence of processes removing plastic debris from the ocean, washing to shore or sinking in the ocean. We are currently exploring what these processes, biological or physical, may be, and evaluating the possible magnitude of different loss pathways.

In parallel, a number of citizen based programs around the world have been funded. In Australia, successful examples include Tangaroa Blue, GhostNets Australia, and TeachWild, a national initiative from CSIRO and Earthwatch Australia, funded by Shell, aimed at raising awareness of the deep impacts of plastic debris in the ocean through engaging children in surveying and mapping the distribution of marine debris in Australia’s shores, identify major sources of debris and measure the impacts on wildlife.

We challenge the reader, on Oceans Day, to join us in a one-month “plastic de-tox” commitment. Start by counting how many disposable plastic items you use in one day, and decide how many of them you could do away without compromising your quality of life in any significant manner.

Our plea is particularly aimed at the designers of consumption goods, who can, through simple decisions lower the amount of plastic used. Packaging consumer goods represent the bulk of global plastic use, with 37 % of all plastic consumed in Australia.

We have also encouraged our colleagues at The UWA Oceans Institute to join the challenge. We will be sharing tips and information on how to replace plastic objects through our Facebook and Twitter to facilitate the challenge. Share with us your tipps on de-toxing your life through #PlasticDetox .

This piece has been coauthored, as guests to my blog, with:

Julia Reisser, Ph.D. student, UWA Oceans Institute, whose Ph.D. thesis is on marine plastic pollution around Australia’s coastal waters.

Dr. Michele Thums, Research Fellow with AIMS and the UWA Oceans Institute

Guiomar Duarte-Agusti, communications officer at the UWA Oceans Institute.


de Stephanis, R., Giménez, J., Carpinelli, E., Gutierrez-Exposito, C., & Cañadas, A. (2013). As main meal for sperm whales: Plastics debris. Marine Pollution Bulletin, in press.

Galgani, F., Jaunet, S., Campillo, A., Guenegen, X., & His, E. (1995). Distribution and abundance of debris on the continental shelf of the north-western Mediterranean Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 30(11), 713-717.

Hammer, J., Kraak, M. H., & Parsons, J. R. (2012). Plastics in the Marine Environment: The Dark Side of a Modern Gift. In Reviews of environmental contamination and toxicology (pp. 1-44). Springer New York.

Rochman, C. M., M.A. Browne, B. S. Halpern, B. T. Hentschel, E. Hoh, H. K. Karapanagioti, L. M. Rios-Mendoza, H. Takada, W. Teh, and R. C. Thompson. (2013) Policy: Classify plastic waste as hazardous.“ Nature 494: 169-171.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 156,200 academics and researchers from 4,518 institutions.

Register now