Living in a pristine, relatively litter-free environment it’s hard for us to comprehend that certain parts of our precious planet are suffering serious degradation because of plastic waste. The planet’s oceans have become a vast dustbin for trillions of tiny pieces of plastic swirling around in five major oceanic ‘gyres’. These gyres are created when airflows move from the tropics to the polar regions creating a clockwise rotating air mass which drives oceanic surface currents in the same direction: here the plastic debris of our throwaway lives accumulates.

Generally the countries which are the main culprits are those with the worst waste management practices with coastlines on the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans: currently China and Indonesia top the league table of plastic polluters. Once plastic waste reaches the oceans via beaches and rivers larger items such as bags, wrapping and fishing gear can entangle dolphins, turtles and even whales, while smaller bits are swallowed by fish, sea birds etc. In the longer term plastics degrade into tiny toxic particles (microplastics or nurdles, less than 5mm in diameter) which can be ingested by small marine animals and stored in their tissues.

Recent research has shown that even Arctic sea ice has concentrations of microplastics greater than in the Pacific gyre. This means that if Arctic ice continues to melt at its current rate as a result of global warming a vast extra load of microplastics will be released. Further research has shown that microplastics are not just bobbing around in surface waters but are also accumulating in deep marine sediments, as deep as 3000m. It is estimated that around 8 million tonnes of plastic waste is added to the oceans each year.

All this may seem very remote from our lives here in Cumbria, but we can all help by making sure we that we reduce, recycle and reuse plastic products wherever possible, and never chuck plastic waste into becks and rivers, onto beaches, or overboard from boats and ships. We can all do our bit. Over the last few years I have visited remote beaches and harbours on the west coast of Scotland which were desecrated by tangled piles of fishing lines, flipflops, plastic bottles of all sorts, toys, yoghurt pots – a depressing sight indeed. We are all part of the problem.

Patricia Howell

June 2015