In 1883, a man called Thomas Huxley addressed his audience at the International Fisheries Exhibit in London. He reassured them with words that have since become infamous among those who look critically at the state of our fisheries. He told them that overfishing was impossible, that the supply of fish was inexhaustible and that we would never run out.
Each year the UK is told by the European Union how much of each type of fish we are allowed to catch. This is known as the Total Allowable Catch (TAC). How do they know? The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy uses something called the Maximum Sustainable Yield to inform the TAC. Basically, the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) is the amount of fish we can take from a given population and still leave enough fish behind to reproduce and replenish the population to the same numbers for the following year. It is designed to ensure the fishery can be sustained for the future.
As you can imagine, figuring out the MSY is damn tricky (how do you count fish in a 3D environment we can’t survive in?!) and so the result is often imprecise. The MSY also assumes that the only source of depletion for a fishery is us; it does not take into account loss from other sources, such as predation, disease or death from other environmental factors. This leaves a too-small population of fish left to try and repopulate to previous numbers. There is also immense pressure for authorities to prescribe fishermen a TAC that will provide them a sufficient amount of income. Subsequently, the TAC recommended by fisheries scientists is seldom adhered to. An average of 68% of TAC limits set by the European Union exceed the recommendations. There is a fundamental lack of political will in restricting fishing practice and underlying disparity between fisheries scientists and economists.
Another byproduct of the fishing industry is bycatch, whereby non-target species are accidentally caught and killed. Bycatch is usually thrown back overboard as it holds no economic value, and can include anything from whales to jellyfish. The Common Fisheries Policy’s most recent revision stipulated that bycatch must now be ‘landed’ – that is, brought to shore and included in the total catch weight. The philosophy behind the discard ban was to reduce this wasteful practice but it has been criticised for not encouraging less destructive and more selective fishing methods and gear.
Farmed fish, also known as aquaculture, has been heralded as the environmentally conscious way of consuming seafood and now 50% of all fish consumed comes from farms. The notion that this method of providing us with seafood is environmentally superior is a little misleading. Farmed fish, such as salmon, are fed wild-caught fish, either ground up or in pellet form.
James Smith, a research fellow in Fisheries at the University of New South Wales, pointed out we need to reevaluate what sustainability means. Sustainable fisheries and fishing practices are achievable and there are many examples of well-managed, healthy fisheries but as demand as increases, so does the pressure on our fishing grounds. Once we’ve exceeded the limit of one fishery, we will turn to another.
Our consumer choices are our votes. The more we purchase fish, the more the demand increases which in turn decreases our fish stocks. The British are not reliant on seafood as a vital source of protein. We don’t have to eat fish; we have the luxury to choose an alternative.
Sources and further reading:
Cardinale, M. and Svedang, H., 2008. Mismanagement of fisheries: policy or science? [online]. Fisheries Research, 93 (1-2), 244-247.
Damalas, D., 2015. Mission impossible: discard management plans for the EU Mediterranean fisheries under the reformed Common Fisheries Policy [online]. Fisheries Research, 165, 96-99.
Mace, P., 2004. In defence of fisheries scientists, single species models and other scapegoats: confronting the real problems. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 300, 285-291.
Oppenlander, R., 2013. Food Choice and Sustainability: Why buying local, eating less meat and taking baby steps won’t work. Langdon Street Press.
Piet, G., Van Overzee, H. and Pastoors, M., 2010. The necessity for response indicators in fisheries management. International Council for the Exploration of the Sea Journal of Marine Science, 67, 559- 566.
Pontecorvo, G., 2003. Insularity of scientific disciplines and uncertainty about suppy: the two keys to the failure of fisheries management [online]. Marine Policy, 21 (1), 69-73.
Salomon, M., Markus, T. and Dross, M., 2014. Masterstroke or paper tiger – the reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy [online]. Marine Policy, 47, 76-84.
Villasante, S., Garcia, M., Gonzalez-Laxe, F. and Rodriguez, G., 2010. Overfishing and the Common Fisheries Policy: (un)successful results from TAC regulation. Fish and Fisheries, 12, 34-50.
When I was younger I used to think people who picked up and binned other people’s litter in the street had something wrong with them. I thought they were a bit weird, a bit dirty or even a bit self-righteous. Over a decade later and I’m one of those weirdos, resplendent with my litter picker and bin bag, merrily minding my own business on my quest for cleaner beaches.
I was recently reminded of my old attitude by my friend’s mum who was aghast when I brought home rubbish I’d collected from a dog walk across some heath-land. My previous environmental antics had been accepted with a fond eye roll, but this just seemed a step too far. ‘Why on Earth would you bring home other people’s rubbish? It’s not your responsibility.’
I was quietly perturbed by her response but knew it wasn’t exclusive to her. There seems to be a spectrum of attitudes towards litter; those who drop litter, those who don’t but don’t pick it up, those who don’t drop litter but will pick it up, and everything in between. It doesn’t help that litter picking is synonymous with punishment, like community service. I pick up litter in ‘natural’ environments such as beaches and the aforementioned heath-land but don’t really bother in urban areas such as my local town centre. My reasons for this are twofold. When I litter pick, it can become… well… a little obsessional. If I was to pick up the bits and pieces that catch my eye in my town centre, I would never get any shopping done or get to work on time. The stigma does hold me back in such densely populated areas. I worry (needlessly) what people will think of me or that they will throw rubbish at me. In quieter places of nature, this concern doesn’t affect me so much and I am free to indulge my obsession. But I will simply need to get over my self consciousness and do more.
There does seem to be an unaddressed stigma attached to picking up other people’s litter in the street. After all, we pay our taxes for the council to do this for us right? Yet litter is still prevalent in areas under the responsibility of our already-squeezed councils. Areas that aren’t covered by council litter picking, such as our beaches, are even more vulnerable to the damaging effects of litter. This is the domain of environmental charities and initiatives, such as UK based Surfers Against Sewage and Bournemouth based Dorset Devils. They rely on the goodwill of dedicated volunteers and whilst it is a start, it is by no means the end.
Picking up litter needs to be normalised. Thankfully, via the platform of ubiquitous social media, this has a fighting chance of happening. Instagrammers, such as UCOTrashTagProject, Take3ForTheSea and AQuickPick, share photos of trash collected by themselves and other lovely people. 2 Minute Beach Clean run fortnightly competitions for beach cleaning Instagrammers with prizes kindly donated by Surfdome and Reef. Their beach cleaning stations have made it easier for members of the public to get involved and do their own #2minutebeachclean and have even crept inland to Dartmoor. Surfers Against Sewage have mirrored this concept of little and often with their own #minibeachclean campaign. The promotion of litter picking by charities and initiatives is of great importance but likely only reaches an audience of likeminded people; that is, they could be preaching to the choir. It is our responsibility, as the choir, to sing even louder.
Not all litter is dropped; it may have been blown out of bins or ripped out of bags by foxes and gulls. Who is responsible then? It is our responsibility as residents of our towns, our counties, our country and our planet, to do better and be better. Inaction only compounds the problem. You don’t have to rally a group of volunteers. You don’t even have to buy a litter picker. You just need to do a #2minutebeachclean, #aquickpick or #take3forthesea.
Biodegradable plastic is being heralded by some industries as the perfect compromise between all the benefits of plastic (durability, versatility, etc.) in addition to being biodegradable and thus having minimal impact on the environment.
If you think this sounds too good to be true… well, you would be right.
The term ‘biodegradable plastic’ is used loosely and can encompass biodegradable plastic and bio-derived plastics. Bio-derived plastics are made from biomass such as specifically grown crops or organic waste material. For example, bio-polyamide11 is made from vegetable oil and polylactide is made from lactic acid derived from crops like maize. Not all bio-derived plastics are necessarily biodegradable – and therein lies the first problem with biodegradable plastic; the interchangeable terminology.
Biodegradation is the ‘biological process of organic matter, which is completely or partially converted to water, CO2 /methane, energy and new biomass by microorganisms (bacteria and fungi)’. Subsequently, biodegradable plastic (petroleum based or bio-based) is broken down by a process known as hydrolysis, whereby the addition of water breaks the chemical bonds that holds the molecules together. It already has some nifty and terribly useful applications such as dissolvable stitches that are broken down by enzymes in the human body. However, dissolvable stitches have been engineered to biodegrade in the very specific environment of the human body; they won’t necessarily biodegrade as rapidly outside of it. Polylactide plastic can be broken down by certain microorganisms but there is no guarantee they will come into contact with them when discarded.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic contains an added ingredient, such as the metal manganese, to encourage a rapid type of degradation known as oxidation. This causes the plastic to degrade into many small fragments. Essentially, this type of biodegradable plastic produces microplastics and much more quickly than other types of plastic (though can still take up to 5 years). The fate of these microplastics is unknown. They may break down further or they may persist as microplastic fragments. Is this better? Or is this compounding the problem, meaning it is not as easy to remove from the environment and increasing the amount of plastic pieces available to wildlife? Its capacity to be recycled is hindered by the very ingredients that are designed to make it degrade. The UK government commissioned a review on oxo-biodegradable plastic and found that incineration or landfill were the best end-of-the-line scenarios (Thomas et al. 2010). Which begs the question – what’s the point?
And therein lies the problem. In theory biodegradable plastic is indeed biodegradable but it requires very specific environmental conditions to truly biodegrade, such as industrial composters. It won’t even break down in your average back garden compost heap or out on the street if dropped as litter.
In the marine environment, biodegradable plastic breaks down best on the beach. The exposure to the UV rays causes photodegradation. This, in addition to other forces such as abrasion, will cause the plastic to fragment into ever smaller pieces but this is where the degradation stops. Once biodegradable plastic has been buried by sand, covered with algal growth or barnacles, or has sunk beyond the reach of the sun, the rate of degradation slows to almost nothing. Polycaprolactone (PCL) is a fossil fuel based plastic but is capable of biodegradation. In the deep sea off the coast of Japan, several species of bacteria have been found to degrade PCL. Such discoveries are unlikely to be useful in the near future; after all, how much of the planet’s marine biodegradable plastic is going to end up at that specific location?
Biodegradable plastic in the marine environment also doesn’t really help out the marine life that are vulnerable to the hazards that marine plastic poses. It can still smother corals and be eaten by sea turtles. Mullet et al. (2012) found that biodegradable plastic degraded much slower in sea turtle stomach fluid than manufacturers claimed it would in an industrial composter. Oxo-biodegradable plastic in the same stomach fluid broke down even less. If the acidic environment of a sea turtle’s stomach can’t even degrade biodegradable plastic in good time, then it really is no better for the marine environment (or any environment!) than regular plastic.
Marketing plastic as biodegradable will likely change public perception about their responsibilities with disposal. It may encourage people to be even more reckless with how they treat their trash by increasing rates of littering on the assumption it will biodegrade as rapidly as other biodegradable items, like vegetable peelings and banana skins. Biodegradable plastic also doesn’t solve the environmental damage associated with their manufacture, whether fossil fuel based or otherwise.
So there you have it. Unless “biodegradable plastic” ends up in the right environmental conditions as specified by the manufacturer, the benefits over regular plastic are negligible. It will still produce microplastics. It will still have the potential to kill marine life and cripple ecosystems. And it can still persist for years to come.
Müller, C., Townsend, K. and Matschullat, T., 2012. Experimental degradation of polymer shopping bags (standard and degradable plastic, and biodegradable) in the gastrointestinal fluids of sea turtles. Science of The Total Environment, 416, 464-467.
Thomas, N., Clarke, J., Mclauchlin, A. and Patrick, S., 2010. Assessing the environmental impacts of oxydegradable plastics across their life cycle. Research Report for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London, UK.
Feature image credit: Richard Whitcombe/ Shutterstock
Plastic is a pervasive and inconsequential material that is found in every facet of our daily lives. It has been pivotal to innovation and societal progression. It’s in our cars, our work place, our schools and universities, our homes and cosmetics. To reduce the amount of plastic we buy and possess is a constant challenge and no mean feat.
What even is plastic? Plastic is made from fossil fuels and consists of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine and sulfur. 92% of plastics produced are thermoplastics. These are products that can be moulded into, say, a plastic bottle and then later melted down and remoulded. The remainder are thermoset plastics which, like a cooked egg, cannot be returned to their original form. These include products like mattresses and bath tubs. Plastic can be given certain properties, such as being flame retardant, with the addition of further chemical ingredients. It has been an undeniably useful material with its huge versatility and durability.
Plastic is renowned for its persistence in the environment, degrading to microscopic pieces that don’t break down any further. It is produced by fossil fuels, which for years have been decried as a finite resource. Crude oil is associated with environmental concerns at every stage of its extraction, including high profile and disastrous oil spills such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the 2010. However, there are arguments in favour of plastic as the sustainable material of the future. The British Plastic Federation insists that plastic makes an ‘immense contribution‘ to environmental sustainability with the wide variety of recycling options available. Curtec claims that plastic packaging actually reduces waste by preventing product loss due to damage. By transporting plastic bottles, instead of heavier glass bottles, fuel consumption can drop by up to 40%. It cannot be disputed that the plastics industry provides employment and revenue but at what cost to the environment?
Plastic production is on an upward trend and, with 299 million tonnes produced in 2013, will be here to stay for some time yet. About 1.5% to 4.5% of waste plastic is thought to end up the sea. If you don’t think this sounds like a lot, that’s up to 13 million tonnes (or 29,000 full capacity Boeing 747s for arbitrary comparison). This is in addition to the 5 trillion pieces of plastic that have already accumulated in our oceans. Plastic comprises up to 95% of marine litter found in all marine ecosystems.
It is no wonder that roughly 630 marine animals have been recorded as interacting with marine plastic. This is only what scientists have witnessed – there will undoubtedly be a good deal more that happens out of sight under the surface. Plastic has been harming marine life as early as 1962, when a Leach’s storm petrel was found to have consumed plastic. It entangles, strangles, poisons, pollutes and persists.
The obvious and easiest option is recycling. Recycling prevents plastic from entering landfill where it takes up a lot of space that could be better used. Recycled plastic can produce many items of further use, such as bags and clothing. Unfortunately, these recycled products are generally of lower value and quality than the original product, due to the limitations of the recycling process. Despite this, some companies, such as Patagonia, Nike and Riz Boardshorts, have successfully championed plastic recycling by creating beautiful clothes. However, it has not been lost on some people that each time an item of synthetic clothing is washed it loses at least 1,900 fibres. Too small to be filtered out by water treatment, these can end up in the ocean. Can we justify recycling plastic into products that add to the problem?
Currently the UK recycles 45% of its household waste. With kerbside recycling available to 90% of the UK, why isn’t this figure any higher? A survey of attitudes towards recycling in London found that non recyclers/ low recyclers:
Distrusted the councils and wanted easier ways to recycle
Weren’t aware of where their recycling was going or what ‘being recycled’ entailed
Weren’t even sure if it actually got recycled but thought it probably got put into landfill
Thought it was inconvenient or not important
The survey concluded that locally relevant information was important in changing attitudes and improving recycling rates – people wanted to know where their local centre was, how the recycling process works and where it goes after that. Putting recycling into context of local facilities makes the whole process more tangible and reconnects people to what they throw away.
Doing away with plastic altogether
One day we will stop consuming oil and plastic. We will run out or we will be forced seek alternatives as its scarcity causes its price to increase beyond our ability to pay for it. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait until this point to start replacing the plastic presence in our lives.
The UK government has been making changes to prompt the public to step away from plastic, such as the 5p bag charge. It has been hugely successful; Tesco has reported an 80% reduction in plastic bag usage. However, our government only reached this point because the Break the Bag Habit coalition piled on the pressure.
We don’t have to wait for the begrudging government to force the public into poorly informed behavioural change. We can start making gradual changes now. Sometimes its difficult to understand just how much waste we produce; I urge you to save up a weeks worth of plastic. Clean the meat packaging, hold onto the crisp packets and save the scraps of clingfilm. Every single plastic item you will throw away and have ever thrown away will persist long after you have passed on. It sounds morbid but that’s the sad reality. Photographer Gregg Segal photographed Americans with a weeks worth of their rubbish. His poignant photos are a jarring reminder that our waste legacy will outlive our grandchildren.
The rise of the plastic free lifestyle
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. Plastic-free and waste-free lifestyles are becoming increasingly popular. The majority of plastic consumption in the UK and Europe is packaging. So, a good place to start making changes is with our food purchases. Many of our food products, particularly fruit and veg, is unnecessarily shrink-wrapped, bagged and sealed in plastic when many have their own protective skins – such as oranges or avocados. The majority of independent greengrocers seldom pre-package much of their produce. If you ask, butchers are generally happy to use containers brought from home if they tare the weight first. They will also be able to tell you about the welfare of their meat, so you can make informed choices. Plus you have the benefit of eating locally grown goodness and supporting local business. In the UK, I have struggled to find a store outside of London that sells dry produce, such as pasta or rice, in bulk bins for customers to help themselves with their own containers. Spill the Beans, my independent health food shop of choice in Wimborne, sells various herbs, spices and dried fruit un-packaged and will use home-brought containers when the shop isn’t too busy. Otherwise, I’m stuck with buying dry goods in plastic packaging. Buying a large bag of rice saves on the plastic of several smaller bags, a compromise I’ve had to tolerate until a better option arises.
Science has stumbled across a few surprising ways nature can help the marine plastic crisis by degrading plastics once and for all. There are polystyrene eating mealworms that poop out biodegraded pellets that can be integrated safely into soil. A new species of bacteria has been found to degrade PET plastic, the kind that is used to make plastic bottles. It produces an enzyme that scientists hope will make the recycling process truly 100% efficient by breaking down PET plastics into a soup of their original ingredients. It means plastic could become a bonafide sustainable resource – if only everyone recycled.
Plastic made from starch is one of the few natural plastics already in wide circulation, such as potato starch packaging chips or plastic bags. The only issue with producing starch plastic is that it involves growing crops such as maize, potatoes and sugar cane. Can we justify using the land and resources growing food for plastic production when there are communities that could better use it as food? Algae is gaining ground as the next natural plastic. Genetically modified cyanobacteria, a type of algae, can convert carbon dioxide into ethylene, a primary plastic ingredient normally obtained from petroleum. This method of ethylene production won’t be ready on a commercial scale any time soon but represents an intriguing and potentially carbon neutral way of making plastic. It’s not just scientists getting in on the action though – product design student Ari Jonsson has made biodegradable bottles from agar, a type of powdered algae. These bottles can even be eaten, should you feel the urge. It will be a while before the algae bottles hit the shelves but the future of nature playing a role in plastic substitution and development shows some serious promise.
Recycling is a means to an end and should really be a last resort – it lets us continue consuming at the startling rate we are by justifying that our waste will have another life. It is giving us excuses. Plastic can only be recycled so many times before it inevitably winds up in landfill, the sea or incinerated. For the time being, traditional plastic is here to stay as algal substitutes and plastic munching mealworms are yet to become a commercially viable option.
If you’ve never encountered some of the plastic free alternatives above, I understand they can seem quite daunting and even taboo. Going plastic free is not just a change in product, it’s a change in attitude. Making this transition is about baby steps and forward planning. If you try to replace too much all at once it can become time consuming, frustrating and expensive. It can prompt a plastic-binge trip to the supermarket – trust me, I know from experience. It requires a bit of research and, yes, there are higher upfront costs of buying permanent plastic-free alternatives than their disposable counterparts. But there are some really nice products out there and its the chance for a little retail therapy – who doesn’t love that?
This blog, in many ways, is a long overdue addition to the online presence of The Sea Hippy. I run The Sea Hippy Facebook and Instagram page and even have a Twitter account that I have not once used (I’m yet to master all realms of social media), so a blog seemed a natural progression. The former Internet platforms are ideal for spreading messages in short, punchy posts but not so appropriate for topics I wish to explore and discuss in any detail. I have been inspired by a number of my like-minded friends who run insightful and articulate blogs (see below for links) and a lecturer at my university who has stirred much introspection.
I hope to expand on starbursts of thought I share on The Sea Hippy social media. I have just become vegetarian and I’m attempting to cut back on the plastic I use in my daily life; I’m an aspirational and imperfect environmentalist. I organise beach cleans in west Dorset as a representative for the British environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage and am studying a degree in Marine Ecology and Conservation. I try hard to practise what I preach but, like everyone, I could try harder; it is a journey with a long term goal of minimising my environmental impact on this planet as much as feasibly possible.
A milk bottle I recycled into a watering can
A fishing net bowl by @kittiekiller (Instagram)
Solo beach clean at Chesil Cove
Family beach clean at Kimmeridge
Concepts, such as the reluctance to break habits of a life time to affect change we may never experience in that same life time, will be explored with my rambling (and sometimes contradictory and hypocritical) commentary where I will invite you to form an opinion based on current evidence and assist with the forming of my own. I suppose the original aim of The Sea Hippy as a platform for local beach clean and beachcomb finds has subsequently shifted to a more global perspective and will encompass a broader range of marine-themed environmental and animal welfare topics. However, the Facebook and Instagram will remain Dorset-centred.
I do hope you enjoy this blog and the food-for-thought it will offer.