A sea of garbage that won’t go away

HOW many planets are there in the our galaxy? No idea? Try another one. How many stars are there in the Milky Way? Need to Google it?

Okay, try this one, then. How many fishes are there in the oceans?

Here are the answers. There are about 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, and about 250 billion to 400 billion stars, according to scientists.

As for fish in the ocean, the number is estimated at under four trillion. That’s four, followed by 12 zeroes.

No, these are not trivia questions. They lead to a terrifying story that has to be told.

There are now more microplastic particles in the oceans than there are stars in the galaxy – 500 times more.

A minimum of 250 billion stars in the Milky Way, with 500 times more microplastics. Feel free to reach out for a calculator and do the math.

In a few decades – by 2050 – these plastics will outnumber the fish as well. Not just fish. ALL sealife.

We are poisoning our oceans with our plastics. And in so doing, cutting off one of the most important food sources we have. Our water is also getting more and more polluted. In just a few decades, the planet we will leave for our children could well be a forbidding and uninhabitable place.

What exactly are microplastics, you may ask.

They are the small plastic particles found in everyday personal care items like body wash, toothpaste and face scrubs, as well as other objects like fleece clothing, tyres and packing materials. You know, things like bottle caps, broken pieces of plastics, straws that have broken into three, etc, etc ...

These microplastics are not biodegradable. Centuries after we are gone, they will still be floating in our oceans or lying in our seabeds.

Already, the effects are obvious and painful.

Remember the whale found dead in Norway in February last year? It had more than 30 plastic bags and other plastic waste inside its stomach. Wardens had to put it down after realising it wasn’t going to live.

In January a year earlier, 29 sperm whales were stranded on the North Sea shores off Germany. Most had stomachs filled with plastic debris. A fishing net, a piece of plastic from a car and other pieces of plastic litter had also been swallowed by the animals.

In 2011, a young sperm whale was found floating dead off the Greek island of Mykonos.

Scientists believed it might have swallowed a giant squid. But there was no squid. There were almost 100 plastic bags and other pieces of debris instead.

The plastics are everywhere.

Midway Island, an atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, lies some 3,000km from anywhere. The Laysan albatross nest there. The parents go out to sea to get food for their chicks. Instead of seafood, they mistakenly bring back plastic debris for their chicks – things like beer can loops to plastic bottle tops to cigarette lighters. The chicks die excruciatingly painful deaths.

These animals are dying out and we are the reason behind it. Every minute of the day, one garbage truck of plastic is being dumped into the ocean. Cleaning up is a monumental task.

There are many organisations around the world trying to get out there and clean the sea. There are thousands of boats and people picking up the garbage, bringing them back to dry land where they can be properly destroyed.

But with the garbage being produced at a phenomenal rate, the cleaners are only a drop in the ocean.

I was in Auckland last week, where the Volvo Ocean Race made its stop.

Auckland has among the cleanest harbours in the world. An exhibition was on showing the rubbish collected in Auckland. There was almost nothing.

Auckland also offers free water – without the bottles. So, you can either drink straight from the taps or water dispensers or better yet, arm yourself with a recyclable bottle so you can top up your water in the hot, summer days.

No plastics and free water, too.

Our politicians can learn a thing or two from there, especially those offering to give free plastics bags if they win.

The race itself is special. Backed by Volvo, the sailboats race around the world but scientists also work on the harbour stops to check the waters and see how to clean up our oceans.

They have learnt much, about where the ocean’s giant garbage dumps are and where much of the garbage is headed or clumped.

Volvo is serious about keeping plastics out of the environment – their new cars will have recycled plastic in their back panelling. It’s pretty, efficient and economically friendly.

But there is still much to do. For now, it is a losing battle. “Turn the Tide on Plastic” – the UN-funded boat in the race – is currently lying last.

The writer, who can be reached at raj@thestar.com.my came home from Auckland a converted man. The plastics must go, and the fishes must live – even if it is just so they will die and feed us humans instead. Or maybe, we should all go vegetarian.

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