Plastic , ecology , earth , carbon

Is plastic affecting the ocean as a carbon sink?

Is plastic affecting the ocean as a carbon sink?

Our oceans are essential in keeping the planet healthy, but a deluge of plastic waste is putting that ability in jeopardy. The CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels makes its way into our seas – yet it's being overpowered by vast quantities of discarded plastics which pose an ever-increasing detriment to marine ecosystems and their capacity for climate repair. 

Tatiana Luján, ClientEarth's lead plastics lawyer, is at the forefront of an international effort to tackle plastic waste in our oceans. While this crisis can seem daunting and overwhelming, Tatiana works courageously with her team to reduce single-use plastic production and distribution - holding producers accountable for their damaging environmental contributions. Through conversations we had with her about oceanic carbon sinks being heavily impacted by human activity such asoverplasticization , it was clear that she truly cares deeply about preserving Earth’s waterways from further destruction .

What is the role of the ocean in the carbon cycle? 

“Around 50% of the oxygen we consume comes from the ocean, and most of that comes from algae that we can’t see. The algae is present on the surface of the ocean, which, along with kelp forests and seagrass meadows, captures carbon from the atmosphere and releases oxygen. Another way in which the ocean plays a part in the carbon cycle is how it allows carbon to sink. There are types of algae and phytoplankton that eat things from the water’s surface, or ingest them through the air they breathe, and so the carbon they eat gets captured, and sinks to the ocean floor when excreted. With all the pressure of the weight of the ocean on top of it, it stays captured.” 

How big a problem is plastic in our oceans? 

Our oceans are in peril and the blame lies with us. With an estimated 11% of plastic waste entering our rivers, seas and oceans each year – that's up to 23 million metric tonnes – it has become a problem so huge even the depths of The Mariana Trench cannot escape its reach! If current trends continue, experts estimate there will be more plastic than fish by 2050; likely being an underestimate as well. It is time we take swift action before this situation spirals out of control. 

Plastic poses a grave danger to many species of wildlife beyond merely impacting their numbers. Birds mistake it for food, which can cause them to feel full and starve; invertebrates may be left with weakened shells from consuming plastic, making them more vulnerable prey. Sadly, these unfortunate creatures are paying the price just as we try in earnest to rid our world of this insidious material. 

Our marine wildlife is in danger due to plastic pollution. Porpoises, dolphins and other species are ingesting damaging chemicals that disrupt their endocrine systems - causing changes in behaviour and development. The Baltic Sea’s population of porpoises has been decimated; most females being rendered sterile by the contaminated waters they inhabit. One animal's suffering leads to a chain reaction: if one species fails, then so does an entire ecosystem as its balance falls apart. 

How does plastic in the ocean affect its ability to act as a carbon sink? 

Plastic pollution has a huge impact on the Earth's oceans - not only are we seeing visible plastic such as bottles and bags, but tiny particles of micro and nano plastics have also infiltrated our seas. These minuscule pieces of plastic make phytoplankton strain out more gases which makes them lighter in weight, meaning they float for longer periods instead of sinking quickly to be reabsorbed by ocean depths. The consequence? Carbon is released back into the atmosphere at an increased rate rather than being ‘captured’ or recycled within marine life cycles – allowing greenhouse gas emissions to skyrocket unchecked.

The potential of whales as an environmental asset to combat climate change is huge – over 30 tons of CO2 can be locked away in the depths of our oceans per whale! This carbon-storing process supports phytoplankton growth, but sadly plastics are a major hazard for these majestic creatures. Ingestion and entanglement due to human waste not only take their toll on individuals, it risks reducing decades' worths of valuable carbon capture if they don't reach maturity; extending lifespans or increasing population numbers could represent one small victory in this global battle against dangerous emissions. 

Not only does plastic debris prevent carbon from sinking properly, but it has a further damaging effect - when hit by sunlight it releases more of the potentially-harmful element. A study in 2018 found that microplastics actively contribute to global warming instead of simply preventing other environmental efforts from taking hold. 

Which other human activities damage the ocean’s ability to store carbon? 

“Trawling is another huge problem. Carbon in the ocean is captured when it sinks, but it is only really captured if it stays sunk. With bottom-trawling, huge nets are used to sweep the ocean floor, so all the sediment that was on the ocean floor gets disturbed and lifted, and all the carbon that was captured in it gets released. It also destroys vegetation, like algae, that lives on the ocean floor and captures carbon. Trawling is terrible for climate mitigation, especially trawling within the first six miles of the shore where most of the algae is.” 

What is ClientEarth doing to help? 

It would take too long and be a futile effort to attempt to clean the world's oceans with small, incremental changes. Rather than trying in vain, we're mounting an attack on plastic waste at its source: reducing single-use plastics and restricting the production of nonessential plastics around our planet. We believe that this is how true progress will be made against ocean pollution. 

We are actively fighting for a change in the production of plastic to help protect our planet. Our campaign against INEOS' Antwerp plant is just one example, while we are also striving towards laws that reduce single-use plastics and restrict more hazardous applications of it. Together, we can make a difference. 

Break Free From Plastic is a movement of NGOs that has made an impressive impact on the European landscape. Not only did they work to implement and ultimately pass the Single Use Plastics Directive, but also achieved tremendous success in banning oxo-degradable plastics from use within EU states. To further improve plastic waste management throughout Europe, this group of environmental activists are now pushing for reform with regard to laws surrounding packaging materials - which contribute no less than 60% towards total single-use plastic been discarded annually! It's time we break free from our dependence on these damaging products once and for all. 

What will you and your team be working on in this coming year? 

“We’re going to start scoping a separate action at a petrochemical cluster in Sweden, which is near a Natura2000 site. Natura2000 sites are the most important protected areas for biodiversity in Europe, and this site is very important for natural diversity in the Scandinavian region. It is home to lots of birds, and the petrochemical plant is leaking plastic pellets onto the site. The birds are eating them, thinking they’re fish eggs, and so all the other organisms are being affected as well. The danger beyond the pellets being eaten by animals is that they carry the toxic chemicals used in the production process. So those chemicals accumulate in the ecosystem. We’re going to work to make the Swedish government take action on this. 

We’re also going to use corporate disclosure laws and consumer protection laws against fast-moving consumer goods companies in Europe that make misleading claims about their plastic products. For example, many companies in France started saying that their disposable cups and plastic forks were reusable in order to continue selling them, which is not true. 

From a corporate standpoint, we want to ensure investors looking to make sustainable investments have the necessary information to compare companies, and decide where to put their money. Many fast-moving consumer goods companies are under obligation from the Non-Financial Reporting Directive to disclose their climate and environmental footprint, and any business risks associated with the environment. Many companies don’t offer a real disclosure however, just glossy brochures which highlight their ‘green initiatives’, and don’t mention the huge pollution they’re producing. So we want to file complaints saying that these companies are not complying with the directive properly and need to be sanctioned.”