Hot topic: The truth about plastic pollution in our oceans

Ocean plastic is entering the human food chain and killing wildlife. We examine the scale of the problem and the steps the travel industry is taking to minimise its contribution to the crisis

By James Draven
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:59 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 16:34 BST
Plastic bag

Plastic bag

Photograph by Getty Images

Wading waist-deep in the water, I help the group draw in the net. I'm in El Salvador, helping a team of marine biologists to catch hawksbill turtles so they can weigh and measure them. Two are wriggling in the net; a young scientist plucks one from the water and places it in our boat.

My hands grasp another; something's wrong. I pull the critically endangered turtle above the water and see that his shell is pinched tight in the middle, as if cinched by a corset.

"The deformity will have been caused by plastic six-pack rings," one of the scientists on the boat tells me. "He must have got one caught around him when he was growing and it stopped his shell developing properly. We see this sort of thing a lot."

All over the world, plastic pollution is in our oceans, harming our marine life. Balloons, plastic bags, bottle caps, and a myriad of other disposable plastic items end up in the stomachs of whales, turtles, and other sea creatures. According to a 2015 study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, over 99% of all seabird species will have plastic in their stomachs by 2050. As well as potential organ damage, gut blockages and poisoning, this can also lead to starvation if the gut becomes too full for the bird to feed. Trillions of bits of plastic waste have formed the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is — at three times the size of France — the largest of a number of oceanic 'gyres', composed of our plastic waste. Of course, these visible pieces of plastic eventually degrade to form microplastics — linked to serious health conditions. A number of recent studies have found evidence to suggest they're now present in the human food chain. "These microplastics attract chemicals from decades of industrial and agricultural run-off and mix with plankton, which feeds on it, mistaking it for food," explains Jo Ruxton, co-founder and executive director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation.

Plankton is the foodstuff of myriad marine animals, from krill to whales, and with plastic particles outnumbering plankton 26-to-one in some areas, these toxic microplastics inevitably climb the food chain, becoming more concentrated as they go.

Nor is the problem easily solved. "It's not possible to take plastics out of the oceans," says Ruxton. "More than half has already sunk to the ocean floor and the average depth is 2.8 miles. But the other main issue is that phytoplankton produces more than half the oxygen we breathe, and if we removed surface plastics we would take all that with it. All we can do now is prevent more from entering the oceans."

One solution is to drastically cut frivolous consumption. Globally, around 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year. Half of all that is designed to be single use. Around 500 billion plastic bottles are used every year, while approximately 550 million plastic straws are used in the UK and America each day.

"Airlines and hotels are two industries that need to change," says Ruxton, "and they're beginning to address the problem. They should start with the easy changes: no bottled water in hotel rooms; no plastic cups wrapped in cellophane; provide shower gel dispensers or solid soap; put out pats of butter and milk jugs instead of individual plastic-wrapped pots. Airlines can stop providing single-use toothbrushes wrapped in plastic, stop wrapping blankets in plastic bags: passengers are unlikely to refuse a clean blanket from a pile just because it's not shrink-wrapped."

Visit for updates on the ongoing crisis.


What's being done?

The new Akyra TAS Sukhumvit Bangkok launched as Asia's first plastic-free hotel this spring. United Airlines doesn't offer straws, and is recycling other plastics. Many more in the travel industry are getting on-board as the crisis continues.

What can travellers do?
Refuse plastic straws, coffee stirrers and cocktail sticks; avoid wet wipes — they contain plastic fibres; choose tinned drinks instead of plastic bottles; avoid toiletries containing plastic microbeads; and never release helium balloons during travels, because most of them eventually end up in the oceans.

Where can I find more information?
National Geographic launched a multi-year initiative in May 2018 to raise awareness to the global plastic pollution problem and its impact on oceans. The campaign hopes to reduce the waste of single-use plastics. Keep an eye out for more articles and ways to cut back on plastic waste.

And another thing... plastic pollution and the travel industry

In the sky

Alaska Airlines became one of the first airlines to ditch plastic straws this summer, with American Airlines doing the same. On the ground, London City is now the first UK airport to ban plastic.

On the water
Royal Caribbean is one of the major players to pledge to reduce its plastic use. Others including P&O Cruises and Cunard have said they will ban all single-use plastics from its vessels by 2022.

Between the sheets
Giants of the hotel world are also waging war on plastic. Marriott International, for example, is replacing plastic toiletries bottles with recyclable dispensers in its North American properties.

On the ground
In June, India announced that single-use plastic will be banned in the country by 2022. In the UK, the Environment Agency has just established a new department to address the problem, too.

Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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