World Turtle Day 2019 reveals surprise sources of marine plastic pollution - and suggests a call to action
Turtles have become an iconic flagship and ambassador of the world’s oceans. These reptiles, of which there are seven marine species globally, are ancient, long-lived explorers. Though normally at sea, the female comes ashore at night to nest. Using her flippers to haul herself up the beach, she will then use these strong front flippers to swipe huge expulsions of sand away, making a large body pit. Then using her back flippers like cupped hands, she will scoop out the perfect text-book example of a volcano with a rounded chamber at the bottom of a long chimney; only here rather than lava could be some 100 table-tennis-ball-like eggs. She will then cover the eggs with the excavated sand, pat it down with her heavy body and return to the sea. Hatching some weeks later, the baby turtles sprint to the ocean – avoiding predatory crabs and birds – to find food, breed and come up to the surface to breathe. On May 23, World Turtle Day, people will celebrate these incredible species and take time to think about how it is that these animals which are more than 100 million years old are now threatened, at risk of extinction unless significant positive actions are taken urgently.
Today, turtles have become the face of the plastic pollution problem, with horrific imagery on social media of plastic bags, rings and straws entangling or choking marine animals. And the response has been remarkable. A massive 80 % reduction in plastic bags following the introduction of a 5p levy, a recent historic success for Scotland with its Deposit Return Scheme to include plastic drinks bottles, and commitments from industry to remove plastic microbeads from facial scrubs and other cosmetics. The reduction or elimination of microbeads in products was set as a target at the last major meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Hawai’i in 2016, which also called on the international community to help remove marine debris from the coastal and marine environment – just look how popular the beach cleans are in the UK now!
Recognising World Turtle Day as an opportunity to learn more about tackling marine plastic debris, we find that for tiny microplastics (less than 5 mm), almost 35 % of the releases into the ocean are from washing our synthetic clothes, compared with only 2 % attributed to microbeads in personal care products. A further 35 % of the releases are from road transportation, mostly from wear and tear of tyres while driving. Though it varies between regions, in Europe the release of microplastic works out to be the equivalent of every person throwing more than one plastic bag into the ocean every week. Such small plastic fragments can persist for decades or centuries, not biodegrading but breaking into even smaller microplastics.
To solve this problem, an IUCN report advises that as consumers we pay attention to textiles and select against synthetics, and notes that recycled fabrics may also lose comparatively fewer of these plastic fibres during washing. To reduce road-related releases, better technological designs to reduce abrasion of tyres on road surfaces and improved water run-off management are suggested. In policy, there are global responses through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14), UN Environment’s #CleanSeas campaign, and both the G7 and G20 have adopted action plans to address marine pollution. The IUCN report concludes that much of the microplastic pollution is from households, and the issue “must be tackled with a global producer-consumer perspective.” A complimentary report beckons, “The globally emerging environmental, economic and health risks related to plastic pollution require immediate international attention.” The annual global production of plastic, a fossil fuel based material, is about 280 million tons per year, including about 50 million tons in Europe.
The IUCN report concludes, “To solve plastic pollution, we first need to close the tap.” Nathan Roberts of Why Conserve said, “This means going beyond reuse and recycle, and striving towards the top three Rs: Reduce, Refuse, and Return.” Attending an academic meeting this week he said, “Today I have heard of great promise in the textiles industry as I learnt about a sustainable technological innovation called Ioncell which can use tree pulp and old newspapers to make new clothing. It seems that last year, Finland’s first lady, Jenni Haukio made headlines wearing a dress made from the country’s birch trees.” He added, “As we celebrate World Turtle Day this year and identify textiles as a surprising major source of plastic pollution, it is so fantastic to see such progress in nature-based solutions to these hidden consequences of washing our clothes.” According to their website, Ioncell is due to be piloted next year for customer testing. You can learn more about turtles, their threats and conservation actions, and join the conversation online – search #WorldTurtleDay.
Thanks, World Turtle Day, IUCN, Ioncell, and those involved in the plastic bag levy, Deposit Return Scheme, beach cleans and ditching the plastic microbead in cosmetics. Now I would like to…