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Plastic poisoning in oceans threatens marine life, human health

Apr 05, 2011

A recent conference on marine debris ended with a commitment to check the unabated influx of plastic in the oceans, the first step taken in this direction in a decade. Plastic poisoning has affected 276 marine species, mostly sea turtles, and has posed serious health risks for humans.

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Kauai, Hawaii: "Be fantastic, don't use plastic!" chanted a troop of 10-year- olds from President Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Honolulu at the conclusion of an international conference on the millions of tonnes of trash that enter the oceans every year, with serious consequences for marine life and habitats as well as to human health and the global economy.

Most participants were in a celebratory mood at the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference, which concluded March 25 with the Honolulu Commitment to address the growing problem of marine debris. 

But Captain Charles Moore, the man who brought the world's attention to the scope and scale of the problem, was not celebrating. 

"I've been doing this for 30 years and every year it has only become worse," Moore told IPS. 

Moore is famous for revealing the immense amount of plastic in the north Pacific gyre, formed by ocean currents in a massive slow-moving whirlpool thousands of square kilometres in size. 

Moore's Algalita Marine Research Foundation documented that this vast expanse of oceans has about six kilogrammes of plastic for every kilogramme of plankton. He is careful to point out that there is no plastic island as reported in some media, it's much more dispersed. 

"I'm through with these big meetings. It is a sad commentary that the Honolulu Strategy is considered as a beginning to address this," he said. 

With 440 participants from 35 countries, including experts from governments, research institutes, corporations like the Coca-Cola Company, and plastics industry associations such as Plastics Europe and the American Chemistry Institute, the conference was the first major international effort to tackle the issue in 11 years. 

The end result was the Honolulu Commitment, which invited everyone to work on "a global platform for the prevention, reduction and management of marine debris" called the Honolulu Strategy. 

Too little, too late? 

The contents of the one-page Honolulu Commitment were bitterly fought over by representatives from industry, environmental groups, and governments. In the end, they could only agree to share information, improve awareness of the problem and to advocate for the improvement of waste management worldwide. 

This might not look like a breakthrough, but a professional meeting planner said they'd never encountered a group with such diverse and strongly held opinions. 

Will there be less plastic and other debris in the oceans a year from now as a result of this conference and the resulting commitment? 

No one seemed to think so. Not even the marine debris experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that helped to organise the Honolulu conference would say there will be less trash next year. 

"We are all in personal agreement to reduce the amount of marine debris," conference co-organiser David Osborn of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi said at the conclusion of the conference Mar. 25. 

Everyone was prepared to meet the targets and goals in the Honolulu Commitment, Osborn said. 

However, there are no specific targets or goals. Among other things, the document invites stakeholders to "commit to" sharing information and to setting targets for reducing marine debris. 

The next international meeting to presumably set the detailed targets of the Honolulu Strategy is at least four years in the future, say conference organisers. 

Impacts on humans and marine animals 

At least 267 marine species worldwide are affected by entanglement in or ingestion of marine debris, including 86% of all sea turtles species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species.

Now there is growing concern over the potential impact on human health of toxic substances released by plastic waste in the ocean. Small particles (known as 'microplastics'), made up of disintegrating plastic items or lost plastic pellets used by industry, may accumulate contaminants linked to cancer, reproductive problems and other health risks. 

Scientists are studying whether these contaminants can enter the food chain when microplastics are ingested by marine animals. 

"The impact of marine debris today on flora and fauna in the oceans is one that we must now address with greater speed," said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, in a statement. 

"Shut down the spigot of stuff we're making"
- Captain Charles Moore

"We need to address marine debris collectively across national boundaries and with the private sector, which has a critical role to play both in reducing the kinds of wastes that can end up in the world’s oceans," said Steiner. 

Captain Moore disagrees. "We have to withdraw from the corporate materialistic economy. You can't work within, it doesn't work. We have to leave it behind and create local, sustainable communities that have no need for plastics or packaging," he said. 

Moore's foundation has created market gardens that provide local jobs and builds hyper-local communities, he says. 

To help the oceans, what is really needed is to "shut down the spigot of stuff we're making," he said, adding: "You don't bail out an overflowing bathtub without turning off the tap first."

Source : IPS
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