Dhe Pale-footed Shearwater, chocolate plumage, pink feet, is a patient zero. The seabird, which breeds in colonies off the Australian coast, is suffering from plasticosis. Plastic parts, which he mistakes for something edible, cause the tissues of his digestive tract to become permanently inflamed. It scars and hardens, the stomach can no longer work as it should. And the plastic that drives all of this isn’t going away. Two months ago, scientists first detected this clinical picture in wild animals. There is little prospect of recovery. New plastic pours in year after year. The plastic waste in our oceans is, that is now clear at the latest, far more than an aesthetic or economic problem.
Somehow wanting to get rid of what is good for the creatures of the sea and, via the food chains, also for people, is obvious. Not only is the number of organizations committed to ridding the ocean of plastic waste growing, but so are companies. At the same time, they promise their customers something else: You can feel part of this fight if you just buy a shoe or swimsuit made of “ocean plastic”. The garbage in the oceans is marketed as a commodity that suggests: This product will save a turtle, a whale, a pale-footed shearwater. The truth is a lot more complicated.
What exactly is swimming in the seas?
“Marine plastic is a misleading term,” says Andrea Stolte. The physicist and environmental scientist has been working for the WWF to combat plastic pollution of marine ecosystems for years. In one of her most recent projects with divers, she recovered around 26 tons of old, dumped or accidentally loosened fishing nets from the Baltic Sea off Sassnitz. But sea plastic – that sounds like it belongs there, she says. That’s one problem. The second: what is sold under this term on a larger scale today has in many cases not touched the ocean at all.
In order to understand why this is the case and whether it is even a problem, one has to trace a number of things. Who collects the waste and how? How is it processed? What can be recycled? And where does the waste come from? What exactly is swimming where in the seas?
Since the beginning of industrial plastic production in the 1950s, plastic waste has ended up in the sea. Only about ten percent of plastic waste worldwide is recycled anyway, while new production is increasing at the same time. More than half of all plastic ever produced is less than 20 years old. Yoghurt pots from the 1970s are floating in the Arctic, lost flip-flops lie at the bottom of the deep sea, plastic is everywhere. There is hardly a fulmar left on the German North Sea that does not have plastic in it. Microplastics can be found in all the excrement samples of domestic harbor seals and gray seals that were examined. The degradation products of plastic additives can be detected in the fat and muscle tissue of sharks and whales in the Mediterranean Sea.