Tiny plastic particles from car tires and even clothing fabrics could be responsible for up to 30 percent of the plastic polluting our oceans, according to a new IUCN report. Is there anything we can do?
Car tires, cosmetics and even our clothing – plastic is in almost everything we use on a daily basis. And it's having a disastrous impact on our oceans.
Tiny invisible plastic particles are contributing up to 30 percent of the 9.5 million tons of plastic floating around in our oceans and are a bigger source of plastic pollution than previously thought, according to a new report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"Our daily activities, such as washing clothes and driving, significantly contribute to the pollution choking our oceans, with potentially disastrous effects on the rich diversity of live within them, and on human health,” said IUCN Director General Inger Andersen.
Of the proportion of microplastics being found in our oceans, around two thirds come from vehicle tires, and microfibers lost from clothes during washing, while city dust, road markings and boats in the water also contribute to the problem, according to the report.
Invisible plastic problem
While pictures of sea turtles caught up in fishing nets and birds with beer-can rings around their necks are common, the problem of microplastics is literally invisible and has only recently been highlighted as an issue. And still relatively little is known about the scale and the true impact it is having on the environment.
Too tiny to be filtered out of the water through waste-water treatment, these vast amounts of this plastic are making their way into the ocean.
According to the IUCN report, which focused solely on microplastics – defined as those that are thrown in as small particles, in contrast to large plastic waste that degrades in the water – the amount of microplastics currently in the ocean equates to 212 grams of plastic per person. That would be the same as every human on earth throwing a conventional plastic shopping bag into the ocean per week.
Once in the water, these toxic morsels end up being eaten by marine animals and can have serious impacts on the digestive and reproductions systems of fish and other creatures. There are also serious concerns about the plastic passing up the food chain and on to humans.
Around 90 percent of seabirds are thought to have plastic in their stomachs, according to some research
Global strategies on ocean pollution focus on reducing pieces of large plastic waste, said Joao de Sousa, marine project manager at IUCN's Global Marine Program, but it is a system that needs an overhaul.
"Solutions must include product and infrastructure design as well as consumer behavior," he said. "Synthetic clothes could be designed to shed fewer fibers, for example, and consumers can act by choosing natural fabrics over synthetic ones."
But other experts said it is not a strategy that goes far enough and that other consumer habits also have to be targeted. Alexandra Perschau, detox campaigner for environmental organization Greenpeace Germany, said the real problem does not lie with which type of jacket we decide to buy, but the number we are buying.
"The whole fast fashion system is the problem…it's overconsumption," she told DW. "There are so many surveys out that indicate that consumers, be it in Asia, or in Europe, all say we have more than enough clothes in our wardrobes and yet we are buying more and more."
Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014, exceeding 100 billion garments by 2014, according to a fast fashion factsheet published by Greenpeace. And it is not only the fibers washing off into our oceans where fast fashion is causing an environmental problem.
At the same time, clothes are not easily recyclable.
"We have more and more apparel coming from mixed fibers, so we can't even recycle it properly because of the polyester and cotton mix. At the moment, the technology is not that far that we can really separate those," said Perschau.
Recent reports on the plastic microbeads found in many cosmetics have led to calls for the products to be banned – a "welcome initiative", according to the IUCN report, but one that would have a limited impact, as they are only responsible for two percent of microplastics.
Instead, it will have to be a more general crackdown on the activities leading to the tiny particles that will have a real impact, said Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, which campaigns to put an end to plastic in the ocean.
"We are all responsible – it's science, it's industry, it's policymakers, and consumers. We all need to do something. We are all using plastic and we all throw it away,” she told DW.
Westerbos said that innovation in the creation of fabrics with yarn that doesn't shred was needed, while filters should also be made for washing machines. Consumers, meanwhile, should make sure they were filling up their wash and using liquids instead of powders.
Greenpeace's Perschau added that increasing the lifetime of clothing could also help. Instead of throwing away our clothes, she recommended that people think about swapping garments, or taking those we don't want to second-hand markets and vintage stores.
"We don't say you can't wear fashionable stuff, but be smarter and cleverer, so you can live your own wish without taking resources from the planet,” she said.
With seven million people already on the planet and a growing population, Westerbos said that if we want to save our oceans, we need to change our attitudes when it comes to plastic. "Don't buy apples wrapped in plastic, don't use single-use plastic shopping bags, don't use straws that you throw away immediately. There are plenty of ways to use less plastic, let's start with that."