Single use plastic must be banned as a matter of urgency, a Catholic environmentalist has demanded, amid warnings over the vast amounts being dumped in oceans.
The way in which plastics are produced and used must also be changed, Ellen Teague, of the Columban Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, said, warning that without such action plastic will outnumber the amount of fish in the oceans by 2050.
Her call comes amid warnings from experts that estimates of how much plastic has been dumped in the Atlantic Ocean have been ‘massively underestimated’.
The mass of so-called invisible microplastics found in the upper waters of the Atlantic is around 12-21 million tonnes, new research suggests.
But the figure only represents three types of the most common types of plastic litter in a limited size range.
According to a study published in Nature Communications, it is comparable in magnitude to estimates of all plastic waste that has entered the Atlantic over the past 65 years – 17 million tonnes.
This suggests the supply of plastic to the ocean has been substantially underestimated, researchers say.
The study focused on polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene, which are commercially most prominent and also the most littered plastic types, according to the experts.
Responding to the study, Mrs Teague said it is urgent that society changes the way in which it produces and uses plastic.
“As the oceans teem with plastic, it is urgent that there is a ban on single use plastic and a change in the way plastics are produced and used.
“We need to recognise the extraordinary damage plastic poses to our oceans. We must stop dumping plastic into the oceans. If we don’t, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050,” she told The Catholic Universe.
Mrs Teague insisted that manufacturers and retailers must be discouraged from “flooding our shops with plastic”.
“In most shops fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and drinks are wrapped in plastic, or placed in a single-use plastic container. We need information and a tax that will change the behaviour of manufactures and retailers alike,” she said.
“Polystyrene fast food containers have been banned in San Francisco, Toronto and Paris. In England, sales of single-use carrier bags dropped by 95 per cent in main supermarkets since the introduction of a 5p charge in 2015. The average person in England now buys just four bags a year from the main supermarket retailers, compared with 10 last year and 140 in 2014. Drastic change can and must happen.”
Mrs Teague pointed out how in many parts of the world, religious congregations, dioceses and parishes have begun to cease investing in fossil fuel companies because of climate change concerns.
“In the light of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Christian groups should be at the forefront of those who are trying to protect the oceans from becoming a plastic sink,” she said.
“Every parish, every school, every diocese should remove all single-use plastics immediately. They should also initiate campaigns locally, in order to help people understand the threat that the global oceans face. This campaign is essential because the oceans, where life began and thrived for billions of years before it colonised the land, are seriously threatened and it is our generation which has done it.”
Katsiaryna Pabortsava from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) who is the lead author of the paper examining the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean, said: “Previously, we couldn’t balance the mass of floating plastic we observed with the mass we thought had entered the ocean since 1950.
“This is because earlier studies hadn’t been measuring the concentrations of ‘invisible’ microplastic particles beneath the ocean surface.
“Our research is the first to have done this across the entire Atlantic, from the UK to the Falklands.”
Co-author Professor Richard Lampitt, also from the NOC, said: “If we assume that the concentration of microplastics we measured at around 200 metres deep is representative of that in the water mass to the seafloor below with an average depth of about 3,000 metres, then the Atlantic Ocean might hold about 200 million tonnes of plastic litter in this limited polymer type and size category.
“This is much more than is thought to have been supplied.”
The researchers collected seawater samples during the 26th Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT) expedition in September to November 2016.
They filtered large volumes of seawater at three selected depths in the top 200 metres and detected and identified plastic contaminants using state-of-the-art spectroscopic imaging techniques.
Prof Lampitt said: “In order to determine the dangers of plastic contamination to the environment and to humans we need good estimates of the amount and characteristics of this material, how it enters the ocean, how it degrades and then how toxic it is at these concentrations.
“This paper demonstrates that scientists have had a totally inadequate understanding of even the simplest of these factors, how much is there, and it would seem our estimates of how much is dumped into the ocean has been massively underestimated.”
The work was funded by the EU H2020 AtlantOS programme and the NOC.
The AMT programme was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council’s Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (Class) programme.
Picture: Waves bring plastic waste ashore. (Andrey Nekrasov/Zuma Press/PA).