There is no doubt that plastic pollution in our oceans is a growing worldwide problem. The internet is full of images of seabirds and other marine animals entangled in plastic waste, and animals starve because their guts are blocked with plastic bags.
But the problem goes much deeper than this. Much plastic pollution is in the form of microplastics, tiny fragments less than five micrometres in size and invisible to the naked eye. New research shows that these microplastics are even getting into tiny flying insects such as mosquitoes. This means the plastic can eventually contaminate animals in a less likely environment, the air.
Microplastics can come from larger plastic items as they break down but are also released directly into waste water in their millions in the form of tiny beads found in many cosmetic products including face wash and toothpaste, though these are now banned in many countries. Many tiny animals can’t tell the difference between their food and microplastics so end up consuming them. Once inside an animal, the plastic can transfer via the food chain into fish and other creatures and eventually become a potential health problem for humans.
At least major consumer companies like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Nestle are among 250 major brands pledging to cut all plastic waste from their operations – a move described by the UN as the most ambitious effort yet to fight plastic pollution.
The commitment comes as public pressure mounts on manufacturers and retailers to reduce the avalanche of plastic packaging clogging landfills and choking the oceans.
The signatories have promised to eliminate all single-use plastics, and to invest in new technology so all packaging can be recycled by 2025.
The initiative is the result of a partnership between The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Erik Solheim, executive director of UNEP, described the commitment as “the most ambitious set of targets we have seen yet in the fight to beat plastics pollution.”
UNEP has estimated that if current pollution rates continue, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.
Around eight million tonnes of bottles and plastic waste fill the oceans each year, killing marine life and entering the food chain.
Most efforts to fight plastic pollution have focused on cleaning up the waste. But the latest commitment is designed to cut down on unnecessary plastic at its source.
“We know that cleaning up plastics from our beaches and oceans is vital, but this does not stop the tide of plastic entering the oceans each year,” said Ellen MacArthur, the record-breaking British sailor behind the new initiative.
“We need to move upstream to the source of the flow.”
Danone, H&M, L’Oréal, Mars and Unilever are among the other major brands to have agreed to get rid of plastic waste.
Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle were recently named the world’s worst plastic polluters, according to an index by the Break Free From Plastic movement.
In the US and Canada, these three companies accounted for 64 per cent of all plastic pollution identified in clean-up operations, according to the campaign group’s analysis.
“We are focused on improving the sustainability of all of our packaging, regardless of the type, and increasing the amount of recycled and renewable material,” said Ben Jordan, senior director of environmental policy at Coca-Cola.
Pavan Sukhdev, president of WWF International, said the new commitment was “an important step forward to join the efforts of businesses and governments around the world towards system-wide solutions”.
The European Parliament last month voted for a complete ban on single-use plastic items, including straws and cutlery, in a bid to curb pollution. Unnecessary plastic products will be eradicated from 2021 under the plan.
Ocean plastic pollution is affecting the Cayman Islands too. For example, last year hundreds of dead fish and sharks were discovered by divers tangled in a huge, abandoned fishing net drifting off the coast of Grand Cayman.
The floating “ghost net” had possibly trapped and killed sea life in its path for months, as it drifted across the Caribbean Sea.
A diver who captured underwater images of the net said many of the animals were so decomposed it was impossible to tell which species they were.
Dominick Martin-Mayes, a 27-year-old fisherman and diving instructor who made the initial discovery, said he and some friends found the “solid net of dead, decomposing fish and sharks”.
“At first we thought it was a log, but as we got closer we could see it was a net with floats,” he said. “I jumped in the water first and was shocked at what I saw. It took my breath away - the first thing I saw was the juvenile oceanic whitetip [shark].”
The Cayman Islands government subsequently issued an alert to boaters to relocate the net. Mr Martin-Mayes said it had likely travelled more than a hundred miles from where they first found it - four miles north of Grand Cayman.