One of our partners from LABPLAS project, the National Oceanography Centre, released a brand-new podcast three months ago with periodical updates on YouTube. Into The Blue addresses very varied topics with different guests, but always focused on ocean-related problems or the scientific career on oceanography. This time, we want to talk to you about a specific episode released in the end of august that really matches LABPLAS topic: plastics in the ocean. Dr. Zoe Jacobs interviews Professor Richard Lampitt, a member of our consortium, about the impact of plastics in the ocean.
At first, Lampitt’s ambition seven years ago was to research more about this impact, have better information about plastics and communicate about it, as there was a lot of buzz on the media. He wanted to find out whether it was something dangerous or “something that just looked bad on the beaches”. He says that his first hunch, actually, was that with good research they would find out that plastic didn’t last so long and it was not so dangerous at the concentrations they found it. He and his team realised, with all the collected data, that additives on plastics are a nasty material, which affects organisms and humans. There is no need to be scared, but there is definitely a need for good information to take evidence-based decisions.
Richard says that it is good that people are being informed about the situation with plastics, but misinformation is creating an alarming image of the whole marine ecosystem collapsing because of plastics and it is not based on evidence. So, individual actions are a positive start and, of course, putting pressure on governments and industries to choose a better path because now, 10 to 20 million tons of plastics are dumped into the ocean every year.
There are simple yet effective ways to cut plastic contamination such as the plastic bag tax (which has reduced up 80 or 90% of the production of plastic bags), but there are also actions like not buying unnecessary things, try to reuse plastics, make sure they are put in the right recycle system and keeping in mind that “there are many things we can do in our personal life to reduce the amount of plastic which is going into the natural environment, into waste tips or municipal dumps, as it’s an awful way to dispose something”. Measures like the plastic bag tax are proving to be effective but, most importantly, they are changing people’s mindsets.
Recycling isn’t always the easiest task, as many packaging materials include different types of plastic and we don’t know how to recycle them. We need to keep this in mind, but also industry needs to come up with better, more efficient and more effective ways to recycle plastics.
The NOC is currently working to answer to these two questions:
- How much plastic is actually there, in the environment? What sort of material it is, how did it get there and how long did it last?
- How toxic it is, in the concentrations they are finding it, particularly thinking about long-term exposure?
As you know, and Richard Lampitt mentions in the podcast, the NOC is currently working on some European projects, like LABPLAS, in which same tasks to find an answers to these questions are being carried out. Like the samplings done in the Thames and the first and second performed in the Elbe River, to find out the first question.
These plastic objects that flow on the ocean surface are a small percent of the number of plastics that is sinking and becoming sediments. That is why the NOC, alongside with other institutions in each project, is studying microplastics and nano plastics. These are the small particles that plastic breaks into, due to the wave activity and sun exposure, which are a cause of concern because when they reach a size of 10 microns (a thousandth of a millimetre), they can pass to organisms’ organs and tissues. This is how these particles can entry the food chain through fish and cause more damage, especially the chemical additives of some plastic objects.
Bisphenol A, a very common additive to many plastics, is proving to be an endocrine disruptor, which behaves like an estrogen. Professor Lampitt talks about a paper that reveals changes in the weight of male babies when they are born, but their pregnant mothers didn’t live in polluted areas or had an unusual lifestyle. So, this can be the sort of proof that highlights the potential hazards of plastics in the environment.
The long-term experiments to find out how much damage can these particles cause are difficult. It is necessary to expose organisms to certain levels of particles to see how they affects their health, reproduction and other functions, but is a good way to get evidence-based information.
Richard Lampitt clarifies that plastics are, above all, very useful for many reasons: for packaging or health uses, for instance. The problem is those additives to make plastics more useful. The good news is that both on the EU and the UK there have been legislation moves that are pointing to the right direction, like the single use regulation, which bans the single plastic objects.
If you want to watch the whole podcast, you can do it below.