How we trash our oceans

Plastic, the ubiquitous product of fossil carbon, has penetrated to the remotest parts of the world’s oceans. We now have a huge, toxic mess on our hands. [24 September 2013 | Peter Boyer]

TOP: Jennifer Lavers removing micro-plastics from Neds Beach, Lord Howe Island [PHOTO IAN HUTTON]
BOTTOM: In September 2013, from a 20 x 20 cm section of beach at Picnic Bay, Wilsons Promontory, Victoria, Lavers collected 740 pieces of plastic [PHOTO JENNIFER LAVERS]

The impact of humanity on Planet Earth has two aspects. One is Planet Earth. The other is humanity.

This is so ridiculously self-evident that you have to wonder that it needs to be said at all. But things that are obvious in retrospect often turn out to have been overlooked for just that reason.

The science of climate change is hugely complex. No single person can say they’re across all the detail. As if to prove this point, while there is broad agreement among scientists that humans are affecting climate change, debate around probability continues unabated, as it has for decades.

But the human response to climate change is more complex still, by several orders of magnitude. In repeatedly neglecting the human part of this duality, we’re losing sight of both the greatest obstacle to finding our way out of this predicament and the most powerful instrument for achieving success.

My attention was drawn to this by Penny Clive, founder of the Hobart-based arts foundation Detached. Clive has long been a strong Tasmanian voice in support of both an active, vibrant art scene and greater awareness of humanity’s impact on our planet’s capacity to support life.

Describing herself as a “watcher of nature”, Clive keeps a daily photographic record of changes in fungi, which she has found to be a great barometer of climate shifts. She is also part of a growing body of Australians seeking to cross arts–science boundaries.

The creative urge takes in all those things that set us humans apart. A curiosity about the world near and far, an endless quest for solutions to every dilemma, a willingness to go to any lengths and harness any tools and materials to do so – all this and more make up the mix that is humanity.

It was the creative urge that worked out how herding animals and growing crops, making pictures and music, building cities, codifying laws and inventing writing could all work to our advantage.

This same creative urge uncovered the power of fossil carbon: both what it can do for us and how it can work against us. And if we really want to know how much damage our use of fossil carbon is inflicting on the planet, we need go no further than the seas that lap our island’s shores.

Penny Clive’s curiosity about what’s happening around us has taken her into the world of marine science. A week ago she provided the venue (Peppermint Bay at Woodbridge) for a presentation by Jennifer Lavers, whose particular branch of biology is uncovering some very unsettling secrets.

Lavers, a research scientist at Melbourne’s Monash University, has travelled far since she graduated from the University of Alberta, Canada. Her career took her to Newfoundland and then Hawaii, where she investigated how fossil carbon is endangering whole marine ecosystems.

When she arrived in the Pacific Lavers knew that plastic, the most visible product of fossil carbon, was polluting our seas. We’ve all seen it on our shorelines: net floats, nylon rope, polystyrene, drink bottles, syringes, plastic bags, garments – detritus from our throwaway lives.

Hawaii is close to the North Pacific Gyre, a vast ocean eddy that traps and concentrates floating plastic objects into what can only be described as an oceanic garbage patch. Here, plastic flotsam extends over millions of square kilometres.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch, as it’s become known, is only one of at least six such locations in the global ocean. Their supply – more than six million tonnes a year – comes from us and the industries on which we’ve come to depend, washed down drains and rivers or discarded from ships.

But the pollution isn’t even confined to these gyres. It’s all around us. Antarctic travellers (me included) have found it on the beaches of remote subantarctic islands. It’s been recorded on the shores of Antarctica itself. The great white continent is not so pristine after all.

The most visible sign of the damage is the central subject of current research by Lavers into the impact of our pollution on seabirds. She began with the North Pacific Laysan albatross. Thousands of these majestic birds have died around Hawaii’s western islands as a result of ingesting plastic.

Lavers moved on to the University of Tasmania, where her studies brought other species to her attention, in particular the flesh-footed shearwater, which breeds on Lord Howe Island. Nearly all these birds have ingested plastic, which slowly accumulates in the body until it kills the bird.

Numbers of this species have dropped by half in just 35 years. Lavers is now leading a research project to find ways of removing plastic contaminants from birds before they kill them.

The Laysan and the flesh-footed shearwater are just two of hundreds of marine species – birds, fish and other animals – now known to ingest plastic. Many of these species are tiny, very low in the food chain, and this is where the story of marine plastics gets really murky.

Plastics contain chemicals that never existed in nature until we learned how to make them from fossil carbon – from oil, coal or gas. Virtually all of it that’s ever been made – over a billion tonnes by one estimate – still remains in the environment.

Microbes use enzymes to break down natural substances, but enzymes to deal with plastics don’t yet exist. As long as there’s life on Earth such enzymes will eventually evolve, but scientists believe it may be hundreds of thousands of years before they could rid the world of this curse.

Meanwhile the oceanic garbage piles get bigger, while around the coasts waves break the plastic objects into ever-smaller pieces digestible by ever-smaller animals. Plastic toxins are spreading throughout the global marine ecosystem, and we’re the bunnies at the top of the food chain.

The trashing of our oceans is a story needing to be told; a problem begging for a solution. If anything calls for creative minds, this is it.

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