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Our oceans, our future Rowan Byrne

The oceans cover about two-thirds of the surface of the earth and are the very foundations of life. They generate most of the oxygen we breathe, remove a large share of global carbon dioxide emissions and provide valuable protein sources and nutrients – all while regulating our climate and providing endless hours of enjoyment. Globally, they are essential economically for countries that rely on tourism, fishing and other marine resources for income, serving as the backbone of international trade and, by association, our very survival.

Despite their importance for life on land and underwater, oceans are currently experiencing large scale cumulative impacts that reduce their ability to survive. Unfortunately, unsustainable aquaculture practices, marine pollution, habitat destruction, alien species, climate change and ocean acidification as well as over-exploitation, illegal and unregulated fishing are taking a significant toll on the world’s seas.

One of the key issues is ocean plastic pollution. We now produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the sea annually, with an average plastic bag having a working life of only 15 minutes but lasting over 100 years. Plastic is without doubt a valuable resource, but any plastic pollution is both unnecessary and an unsustainable waste. In certain parts of the world, plastic pellets, micro plastics, microbeads, and other forms of plastic now outnumber the fish.

There is no doubt that the barrage of plastic released into the world’s oceans poses a serious danger to marine life. It’s well documented that marine creatures can get tangled up in this as well as ingesting it, whether by mistaking it for prey or because the plastic has been broken down into tiny particles by seawater. It’s important to remember that around 80 per cent of marine litter actually originates on land, either swept in from the coastline or carried to rivers from the streets during heavy rain via storm drains and sewer overflows. However, this means that the source of the problem can be cut off by our actions.

The best thing we can do to protect our marine environment is try to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream in the first place. So what steps can we take to have a big impact on the levels of ocean plastics as well as simultaneously removing them from the waters? As a starting point, here are some tips on what you can do right now to support the reduction of plastic in our marine environment:

  • Wean yourself off disposable plastics. Ninety percent of the plastic items in our daily lives are used once and then thrown away: grocery bags, plastic wraps, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Take note of how often you rely on these products and replace them with reusable versions. It only takes a few times of bringing your own bags to the store, silverware to the office, or travel mug to coffee shops before it becomes habit.
  • Stop buying water, especially disposable individual plastic bottles. Each year, close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed away. Carry a reusable bottle in your bag and you’ll never have to resort to disposable plastic bottles again.
  • Use fewer microbeads. Those little plastic scrubbers found in so many facial scrubs, toothpastes, body washes and other beauty products might look harmless, but their tiny size allows them to slip through water-treatment plants. Unfortunately, they also look just like food to some marine animals. Opt for products with natural exfoliants like oatmeal or salt instead.
  • Cook more. Not only is this healthier than takeaway foods, but making your own meals doesn’t involve takeout containers or food containers used in their preservation. For those times when you do order a takeaway, tell the establishment you don’t need any plastic cutlery or bring your own food-storage containers to restaurants for leftovers.
  • Be sustainable. Purchase second-hand items and look to reuse and recycle. New toys and electronic gadgets come with all kinds of plastic packaging.
  • Recycle more and more! It seems obvious but the more the better!
  • Try to buy in bulk. Consider the product-to-packaging ratio of items you tend to buy often and select the bigger container instead of buying several smaller ones over time. This includes products such as single-serving yogurts, travel-size toiletries and tiny packets of nuts.
  • Engage manufacturers via social media, requesting they use less plastic in their products and work with them to make them aware of the impacts their packaging and product are having on the environment.

This is just a starting point for suggestions, but we can make a difference through our own habits and you can start today. Humanity has the resources, collective will and innovation strategies to deal with this and add value not pollution to the environment. We must focus on solutions, bring stakeholders to the table and make this issue a thing of the past. We all have a part to play in conserving the oceans.

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