A Plastic Existence: The new reality?


A Plastic Existence: The new reality?

T shirts. Shampoo. Bottles. Bags. Toothbrushes. Disposable cameras. Dental floss. Computer keyboards.

What do all these things have in common?


Plastic is an epidemic, a poison spreading across the world with no antidote. Plastic is not biodegradable, and  can persist for hundreds and thousands of years once discarded, choking the oceans, creating mountain ranges of waste responsible for the harm of countless plants and animals, including humans.

Nonetheless, it can be hard to perceive the true impact of plastic when popping into a shop to buy a bottle of water. However, you are just one of possibly millions of people doing that very same thing, and that adds up very quickly. In fact, every minute, humans purchase a staggering 1 million plastic bottles, yet in the US, only 23% of these are recycled correctly. I was recently on a fieldwork mission around the Scattered Islands of Madagascar. At one of these islands, 6073 items of plastic were collected in a couple of days, yet only 3 people live on the island at a research station at any given time. So where did this plastic come from? Possibly from some plastic waste I discarded last week. Possibly some you threw away 5 years ago. The truth is, the plastic is a build up across numerous years from everywhere and anywhere. Unfortunately, it is not just straws and bottles that contribute to plastic in our oceans. Discarded fishing gear is another huge culprit, and something that is not as easy to manage. I spent the May bank holiday weekend in Cornwall. Cornwall beaches are some of the cleanest I have seen in the UK, with regular beach cleans promoted and conducted. However, the problem of abandoned fishing gear was still clear. Plastic netting and fishing lines were regular unwanted neighbours to seaweed and mussel beds, blemishing what is otherwise a beautiful part of the world.

Abandoned boat and fishing ropes is still a problem on Cornwall beaches

Abandoned boat and fishing ropes is still a problem on Cornwall beaches

But what are the consequences of this plastic waste? You have probably all heard of at least one story of a whale, a turtle, or other marine organism that has washed up with a stomach full of plastic, yet these are not just ‘stories’. They are fact. Plastic is killing marine organisms at an alarming rate. To a sea turtle, a plastic bag floating at the surface looks a lot like a tasty afternoon jellyfish treat from the outside. Understandably, it can be hard to see why one should care that a marine organism thousands of miles away accidentally ate a plastic bag. However, that plastic bags our turtle friend mistook for a jellyfish could very well come back to haunt us. Organisms cannot digest plastic. Therefore, a filter feeder, such as a mussel, may take in micro-plastics from the surrounding water. This mussel is then eaten by a small reef fish, which in turn is eaten by a larger, commercially valuable fish, which is then caught by fishermen. Passing up the food chain, it is increasingly likely that the fish you ate from the local chippy’ the other night, or the mussels in your seafood pasta, contains micro plastics that we are then ingesting. I saw firsthand evidence of this in Cornwall, where I came across fishing line stuck in a mussel bed, partially ingested by one individual.  There is now research dedicated to the impact of ingesting micro plastics. Surely this is enough to start making changes and reducing the amount of plastic entering the earth’s ecosystems?


“Plastic is an epidemic, a poison spreading across the world with no antidote”

<- Image: Attempting to remove fishing line from a mussel bed

Durable and lightweight, but deadly, plastic is a global pollution endemic. I am aware that so far, this article has been focussed on the negatives. However it is not all bad news, and there is plenty you can do to help! From an ocean conservation point of view, plastic pollution is one of the few challenges facing the marine realm that we can easily do something about. Even better, we can all do it. And we can do it now. I have found it so easy to make basic changes that allow to live as ‘plastic free’ as possible. Here are my top 5 recommendations on how you can do the same on a day to day basis, because if I can reduce my plastic consumption, then you definitely can too! As a marine biologist, I also want to give you 5 ways you can help reduce ocean plastic specifically, because that is so simple too!


5 top tips to reducing your plastic consumption

  1. Recycling bins: This sounds really obvious, but it can be so easy just to throw all your rubbish in the same bin. Taking 5 seconds to make sure you are recycling properly makes all the difference.

  2. Shopping bags: It’s so easy to say yes to a 5p bag, but it’s also so easy to bring your own, and it is such a good way to reduce plastic. I would also encourage you to not use the plastic bags provided for fruit and veg, and to go for fruit that is not wrapped excessively in plastic!

  3. Reusable coffee cup and water bottle: Again, such an easy change that makes such a huge difference.

  4. Alternative toiletries: Shampoos and shower gels are nearly always in plastic packaging, and they never last that long. I use LUSH products, which are all either plastic free or in fully recyclable packaging, and they last so much longer!

  5. Bamboo toothbrush: Similar to toiletries, but this is something I didn’t even think about until recently. They work just as well and are very similar in price!

 Five top tips to reducing ocean plastics

  1. Take a tote bag: Whether that be to put any beach rubbish you find in, or to carry your souvenirs in place of a plastic carrier bag, a tote bag is always a useful thing to carry with you!

  2. Take your rubbish with you: This one is definitely self explanatory!

  3. Reusable coffee cup and water bottle (Again!): there are always little coffee shops and sweet shops on the beach, so being prepared is always a good idea!

  4. Encourage others: A big part of conservation in any sense is outreach, so pass this information onto others and spread the word. If you pick up a piece of litter from the beach, chances are someone will see and do the same!

  5. 3 min beach clean: This takes no time at all (3 minutes in fact), but if everyone on the beach did it, think of what a difference that would make!

Finally, if you want to learn more about ocean plastics and what you can do to help, the links below will take you to various conservation foundations and charities dedicated to promoting a plastic free world:

4Ocean: https://4ocean.com/

Marine Conservation Society: https://www.mcsuk.org/plastic-challenge/

Rachel Louise Gunn