Sir David Attenborough’s recently broadcast Blue Planet 2 TV series has been a major success. It takes audiences on a journey to the deepest, darkest areas on Earth and has helped us to discover the wonders of the sea. But it has also illustrated the horrors that plastics are causing in our oceans. Many of the sea creatures we love – birds, fish, turtles and whales – die because of the plastic that is now suffocating our seas.
World record-breaking sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur - who broke the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005 - warned at the World Economic Forum 2016 in Davos that there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by 2050 unless something is urgently done. Already, the ocean is filled with about 165 million tons of plastic. That is 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Part of the reason is that plastic use has increased 20-fold in the last 50 years, and it is continuing to rise - reaching 311 million tonnes in 2014. It is expected to double again in the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050.
Despite growing global demand, just 5% of plastics are recycled effectively, while 40% end up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the world’s oceans. Much of the remainder is burned, generating energy, but causing more fossil fuels to be consumed in order to make new plastic bags, beakers, cups, tubs and consumer devices demanded by the economy.
Euromonitor research states that more than 1,000,000 plastic bottles are sold every minute of every day or 20,000 per second, a total of 480 billion in 2016 alone. Less than 50% are collected for recycling and only 7% are turned into new bottles.
An estimated 8 to 12 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans in a single year. This is equivalent to dumping the contents of one refuse truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.
“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish [by weight]” Dame Ellen MacArthur says. A carelessly discarded plastic bag can break down in the sea, especially in warmer waters, but the process releases toxic chemicals that may be digested by fish and end up in the human food chain. This process can take up to 350 - 400 years!
Research has also found that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the seas, many just 5mm across. What the world throws away every year whether plastics, electronics or food, is worth nearly one trillion Euro according to the World Economic Forum 2018 in Davos. Larger items can be a threat to sea life such as turtles, seabirds and seals, which swallow them. Scientists have also found that countless tiny fragments drift to the bottom of the oceans thereby carpeting the ocean bed. The environmental and health impact of this is unknown.
In another study, published in the journal Science, international researchers surveyed more than 150 coral reefs from four countries in the Asia-Pacific region between 2011 and 2014. More than 11 billion items of plastic alone were found on a third of coral reefs surveyed. This figure is predicted to increase to more than 15 billion by 2025. Plastic raises by 20-fold the risk of disease outbreaks on coral reefs, according to research. Plastic bags, bottles and rice sacks were among the items found.
"Plastic is one of the biggest threats in the ocean at the moment, I would say, apart from climate change," said Dr Joleah Lamb of Cornell University in Ithaca, USA. More than 275 million people rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural importance.
Dame Ellen MacArthur’s vision is for a “new plastics economy” in which industry, governments and citizens work together to ensure that plastics never become waste and to end the leakage into natural systems. One part of the solution is to rethink the way consumer and industrial goods are packaged, cutting the demand for plastic. This will take time.
In the meantime, however, Dame Ellen MacArthur’s report suggests three decisive strategies to tackle the problem:
1. Improve the way we design, recycle and re-use plastics. About 30% of the plastic we create is destined for landfill (or the ocean). The report urges a fundamental rethink of the way we design packaging, in order to make what happens to it, after we have used it, a little less hard on the environment.
2. For at least 20% of plastic waste, re-use is an economically attractive option. New and creative delivery models based on reusable packaging could unlock an economic opportunity to the tune of $9 billion.
3. For the remaining 50% of plastic, we need to make recycling pay. Improving packaging at the design stage would make recycling easier. It would also make it more profitable than sending plastic waste to landfill.
Photo: Still relatively plastic free - but for how long? Clogherhead Beach, Co. Louth, Ireland © Dr. Patrick Patridge
What, however, can MICE business event organisers, tourism & group travel operators and their gastronomy, accommodation, activity, transport and entertainment supplier partners do to immediately lessen the impact of plastic wastes, ensuring that our nature still remains intact?
Three immediate and easily applicable measures come to mind:
- Reduce usage of single-use plastics, plastic packaging and containers at breakfast, lunch, dinner buffets, BBQs and picnics
- Serve water, minerals and other refreshments in tour coaches, in hotels, on ships and at B2B trade and B2C consumer exhibitions and promotions in glass / multi-use bottles. Reduce the use of disposable plastic bottles. Make it easier for guests to refill water bottles instead of purchasing single-use ones
- Cease serving drinks and hot beverages such as Coffee2Go and tea in plastic disposable beakers and cups
Such measures will make an immediate and a huge difference, set a good example and provide positive PR for our sector and will certainly be very much appreciated by MICE business event participants, coach and group holiday customers – who, indeed, may more readily relate to such highly visible concrete measures as opposed to important but often quite abstract issues such as reducing CO2 footprints.