Plastic Pollution a Threat to Ocean Sustainability
Plastic Pollution – Concordia University will be hosting a Future Earth Secretariat starting in the fall of 2017. The Montreal-based research consortium will be looking to find solutions to global environmental challenges according to, director of Concordia University’s Loyola Sustainability Research Centre. “Montreal is a major heat island with a big carbon footprint,” he says. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the city is vital.”
Stoett says climate change must be addressed in conjunction with other pressing environmental concerns like ocean sustainability. “Human survival and the life of the oceans are intrinsically bound on this blue planet.” By now most of us have heard that climate change results in rising sea levels with detrimental effects on a variety of animal species and human beings, especially in coastal regions. However, most of us haven’t thought a whole lot about pollution in relation to the quality of life in the oceans.
Stoett recently discussed the ill effects of “plastic pollution” on the oceans’ ecosystems at a presentation on ocean sustainability at Concordia University sponsored by Plastic Oceans Foundation Canada. The talk followed a screening of the award-winning documentary A Plastic Ocean at the Sir George Williams Alumni Auditorium in the Hall Building. Plastic Oceans Canada is part of a global network of not-for-profit organizations hoping to change the way we deal with plastic waste at a local and global level. Daniel Green, Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Canada and Adam Taschereau co-founder of bulk-buying group Nous Rire also spoke at the public meeting at the downtown campus.
“We have a plastic crisis. We are discovering untold levels of plastic in the ocean,” Stoett said. There is already an ocean crisis with overfishing, acidification, and sea level rise. “Carbon recycling of the oceans is extremely important. Marine biodiversity is extremely important. We need a global framework like the Paris Accord. There’s a big environmental justice issue here.”
A Plastic Ocean highlights the harrowing effects of non-disposable plastic on marine life. In one segment of the film, Australian journalist and filmmaker Craig Leeson watches as research scientist Dr. Jennifer Lavers of the Institute of Marine and Antartic Studies removes 234 pieces of hard plastic from the digestive tract of just one seabird chick that like many others of its kind has choked or starved to death by ingesting plastic sea debris. (The record for the species is 276 pieces for one bird while a staggering 85-90% of seabirds have ingested plastic as well as countless fish turtles and other wildlife.) Seabirds are among the most heavily contaminated species and this is a daily ritual for the ecotoxicologist from the University of Tasmania, Australia: picking up scores of dead seabirds that have washed up on the beach at Lord Howe Island, a World Heritage Site, before examining their stomach contents for toxins.
The film makes an impassioned plea for people to think about alternatives to plastic bottles and wrappings as it follows fellow explorers Leeson and world record-breaking freediver and environmental activist Tanya Streeter as they travel to coastal regions in developing countries ravaged by plastic pollution then back to their home-base in Austin, Texas where Leeson surveys trendy eateries and cafés to see if any offer other options besides plastic packaging (most don’t).
Streeter says, “If the plastic is in a dolphin’s food chain then it’s also in our food chain.” The problem is that poor countries with inadequate waste management often use plastic extensively because it is cheap but every year 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea. When smaller “microplastics” are ingested by animals, the toxins released are stored in their tissues and accumulate up the food chain ending up on our dinner tables. This bodes ill for nearly one-fifth of the world’s population that relies on the sea for its primary source of protein as contaminated seafood can cause many health problems.
“Plastic is wonderful because it is durable and plastic is terrible because it is durable,” Leeson says waxing philosophic at this paradox of modern technology. The statistics are mind-boggling: More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year but only a fraction is recycled. In underprivileged countries, entire communities are built on landfills. Leeson interviews farmers who are growing sweet potatoes, corn, and sugar cane in the midst of a plastic dump site. So what is the answer?
Peter Thomson OF, a Fijian diplomat who is President of the United Nations General Assembly says, “As a Pacific Islander I know the Pacific is in deep trouble. Every minute of every day the equivalent of a large garbage truck is backing up and dumping plastic into the ocean.” He says we have to look at ourselves and ask, “Do we really deserve this beautiful ocean given to us?” He cites projections that by 2050 there will be almost as much plastic in the sea as fish by weight. “Single-use plastic has got to be on its way out,” he says.
Leeson tells us that he loves the ocean, it is where he feels most spiritual. “We have to make our lives better for our children’s children. Change is possible. It starts with us.” However, Streeter says that she worries as an “older Mum” who had her children later in life that plastic pollution might be affecting fertility rates in women.
Daniel Green said that plastic pollution doesn’t only affect the oceans but also fresh-water ecosystems like the St. Lawrence River. He drew attention to the high concentrations of microplastic particles in the St. Lawrence River sediment. “It would be interesting to look at the stomach of a sturgeon,” he said. “They’re bottom-feeders.” Green speculated that pollution hot spots like the one in front of Quebec’s former nuclear power plant Gentilly-2 might even contain radioactive microbeads. “Clearly an investigation needs to be done.”
Taschereau focused on the individual’s role in making sustainable choices. He said that when we look at our individual lives we have to ask ourselves, “What can I do about it?” He repeated the mantra of the 3 R’s as the path out of polluting lifestyles: reuse, recycle and reduce while encouraging everyone to compost food waste too. He said that if we come back to our true nature the market will follow, reminding his listeners that we need to look deeper and see ourselves as connected to nature and everything that happens in nature. “Let’s change our lifestyles one step at a time. If we gather our strengths and merge into a zero waste lifestyle things can change globally.”