Single use plastics devastating marine ecosystems and UK coastlines

Bottles and bags just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ocean plastic pollution

We produce around 300 million tonnes of plastic each year, almost half of which is single use such as bottles, bags and straws. More than eight million tonnes of the plastic wasted ends up in the world’s oceans.

This is not a UK problem, this is a worldwide epidemic.

Marine biologist and coastal ecologist Megan Atkinson, 21, Plymouth says ”the main effects of plastic waste in the ocean are entanglement, consumption, degradation and fragmentation.”

These different effects plastic has on our oceans are seen in the killing of marine life, such as the horrifying plastic whale found in Norway last year, along with destroying marine habitats like coral reefs.

Miss Atkinson says ”Ideally, we need to stop using single-use plastics  as soon as possible because the amount of damage we have already done is just about irreversible.”

According to the Plastic Ocean Foundation, a US based non-profit organisation focusing on ocean plastic pollution, we discard up to 1 trillion plastic bags a year around the world and plastic packaging makes up around 40% of all plastics used.

A chart from the BBC showing how much plastic has been produced to date and where it ends up. From Science Mag and the BBC.
Plastic pollution is a ”planetary crisis” says UN Oceans Chief, Lisa Svensson to the BBC. Credit: BBC/Science Mag

In December 2017 UN Oceans chief, Lisa Svennson told the BBC ”This is a planetary crisis,” she continued ”In a few short decades since we discovered the convenience of plastics, we are ruining the ecosystem of the ocean.”

It was also reported by the BBC that the UK uses around 3.7 million tonnes of plastic per year according to the organisation Plastics Europe, although no exact figures are available for the amount of plastic waste.

Single-use is not sustainable

There is currently a whirlwind of media attention surrounding the use of single-use plastics (SUP’s) and they are, quite simply, plastics that are usually only used once. Whilst useful they’re definitely not beneficial to the environment. Steve Wilson, North West representative for the environmental charity ‘Surfers Against Sewage’ says ”My opinion is that we have come to rely on it [plastic] so much, that we have become complacent to use other materials.”

A close up photograph of a drinks straw picked up on Walney beach, Cumbria.
Everyday objects such as straws, bottle caps and plastic bags earn the title ”single-use” and with it comes devastating consequences for marine life.

This complacency is a key factor in the continuing production of SUP’s, allowing large companies to continue production for customers that may not be aware of the problem. Mr Wilson says ”We don’t need a fizzy drink bottle to last 400 years if the product inside will be consumed within 20 minutes. So to use plastic as a container to sell it in seems a wasteful material choice.” With this in mind there are many other materials less harmful than plastic for the environment with glass being a perfect example.

Plastic plates, cutlery,  straws and sauce sachets are all examples of SUP’s. These sort of items that damage marine habitats and wash up on coastlines all around the UK, littering beaches and damaging ecosystems both in and out of the sea.

Plastic is killing marine life at an ever increasing rate. According to a previous report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050.

Consumption and entanglement due to SUP’s can cause animals and habitats to ”become diseased and dye off rapidly due to wounds created if cut by pathogenic and sharp plastic debris.” says Miss Atkinson, she continues ”flesh grows around the debris, causing gaping wounds, possibly leading to infection. Animals can become immobile, not being able to move, becoming exhausted from the struggle and die.”

The amount of plastic that has already been produced is staggering and there is no sign of production slowing down, something that must to happen if we are ever to reverse the damage done to our oceans.

Miss Atkinson says ”The production of plastic needs to be decreased immensely” she continues ”We need to urge these large producers to use alternative materials, getting rid of these single use plastics is the first and the biggest step to reducing the amount of plastic in our oceans, and it needs to start now.”

An unhealthy habit

It’s not just marine animals that are affected by ocean plastic pollution, humans are too. Recently there has been huge attention on ‘microplastics‘ which are created by the degradation and fragmentation of larger plastics and are also present in cosmetics.

A photograph of plastic collected within half an hour walking on St Bees beach, Cumbria. Including bottles, fishing wire and cutlery.
Plastic causes immense damage to marine ecosystems, it’s also quite the eyesore on the beach.

Microplastics enter the food chain and eventually end up being consumed by humans. The Guardian reported a shocking discovery by the World Health Organisation in March 2018. They found that around 90% of bottled water contained plastic fibres.

Microplastic fibres can be extremely toxic to humans. Miss Atkinson say ”Consumption of plastic for humans can be extremely dangerous, the presence of Bisphenol A (BPA) in hard plastics can influence many health problems.”

Miss Atkinson also says ”Evidence has indicated that a low level of BPA exposure can cause cardiovascular problems such as, coronary heart disease, angina, heart attacks, hypertension and peripheral artery disease.”

BPA is believed to cause complications with puberty, ovulation and fertility and scientists believe that it can contribute to the risk of breast and prostate cancer.

Whilst exposure to BPA can prove to be extremely toxic to adults and children it is almost impossible to cut out exposure completely as the chemical is present in every-day objects made from plastic.

Turning the tide

Although dangerous, plastic is an amazing material. It’s durable, lightweight and flexible which allows us to achieve incredible feats of engineering like aircraft and space rockets. However, even though it may help us create great things, it certainly isn’t great in the World’s oceans.

Dr Erik van Sebille from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London explains why plastic isn’t great for our oceans for the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition in the video below:



So, what can be done about this problem? As Dr van Sebille says in his video, we must reduce our use of plastic. Attempting to cut out plastic from our lives will drastically affect the ocean and the rest of our planet.

Surfers Against Sewage’s Steve Wilson says ”pick a couple easy things first & do them consistently. Use a refillable bottle or reusable coffee cup. Even small actions done consistently make huge differences.”

Changing our ‘plastic footprint’ can happen in multiple different ways. The age old ‘Reduce. Reuse. Recycle’ still holds true today. Mr Wilson says ”to reduce how much we buy is essential. Re-use what we have is also a great move. And to buy or use alternatives to plastic also helps.”

Raising awareness of the topic is also extremely important, many people are oblivious to the damage that plastic is doing to the planet. Charities such as the Marine Conservation Society (MCSUK) and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) are organising events and beach cleans to educate people.

A photograph of a father and daughter picking up plastic waste on Walney Island Beach, Cumbria.
Charities around the UK organise events for people of all ages in an effort to clean up UK coastlines and reduce plastic pollution.

These events introduce both children and adults to the problems of plastic pollution and allow them to tackle the problem head on, making a small but meaningful mark on the planet.

Mr Wilson says it’s because ”people care”, he continues ”taking action is a natural progression from becoming aware of the issue and wanting to do something about it.”

Beach cleans and other events can be found on both the MCSUK and SAS beach clean pages, where you can make a difference in an on going battle to save our oceans and environment.

”Think Global. Act Local”

by Isaac Rigby-Nelson


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