This is a guest post from our resident marine biologist Sam Reynolds
I live in a country that many would see as paradise. As a marine biologist managing a reef restoration programme I spend the vast majority of my time in the ocean. For me this is perfect, the ocean is my happy place, the place that I feel most at home, that takes away all my cares and worries and brings me to a place of absolute peace.
However, seeing the coral reefs surrounding the island I call home, on a daily basis you start to notice things. Managing a reef restoration project my eyes are finely tuned to the health of the reef, I have learnt to see the slight changes in the colours of the coral that could indicate bleaching, the tell tale signs of the voracious coral predator, the Crown of Thorns starfish and the feeding scars of a small coral eating sea snail. Unfortunately these three issues are not the only ones facing our oceans.
One of the biggest problems I see in the Maldives is marine pollution. Not one day goes by without me seeing and removing at least 5 pieces of rubbish from the reef. Whether that be a single-use plastic bottle, an energy drink can, food packaging or on the larger scales, rugs, towels and concrete posts (these, unfortunately are a little too heavy for me to remove). Discarded fishing lines and nets have wrapped themselves around large coral colonies, fish pick at the algae encrusted on pieces of plastic sheeting, and shrimps crawl out of soda cans. The reef is littered with trash as are the islands. It is incredibly difficult to know what the answer is.
Plastic bottles, however, seem to be the main problem, you see bottles floating on the surface, bottles crushed and compacted on the bottom of the sea, and bottles lining the beaches. My new year’s resolution for the past 2 years has been to, wherever possible, eliminate single-use plastic bottles from my life. On occasion I have slipped up and possibly contributed 5 or 6 plastic bottles to the world. However, for the most part, I use a reusable plastic, glass or stainless steel bottle; once you get into the habit of ensuring your reusable is full it’s pretty simple, it might seem like a small contribution but it is a contribution none the less.
Especially when you consider that that producing one litre of bottled water uses up to 2000 times the amount of energy that is needed to treat and distribute tap water.
According to de Vries (2013: 456) 200 billion plastic bottles were used worldwide each year from 2000-2010 a stark contrast to the estimated 1 billion plastic bottles used annually around the world in the 1970s (Pilisuk & Nagler, 2011: 32).
The energy needed to produce the estimated 3 million tons of plastic bottles used just in 2007 is the equivalent of approximately 50 billion barrels of oil (Gleik & Cooley, 2009). Many of these bottles are exported, so producing and exporting 1 million bottles causes 18.2 tons of CO2 emissions. Plastic bottles are 100% recyclable, yet only 5% of them actually end up being recycled, plastic can take anywhere between 500 and 1000 years to break down.
When they are floating around the ocean, the plastic suffers degradation from the salt and the sun, and breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces creating a plastic soup for a huge number of marine animals to eat, from tiny microscopic plankton to large leatherback sea turtles. The future of our reefs and the future of our planet lies in our hands. If we all make simple every day changes we can make a difference, and maybe, just maybe, our beautiful reefs won’t be as doomed as we have come to believe.
VRIES, B. D. (2013). Sustainability science. New York, NY, Cambridge University Press.
PILISUK, M., & NAGLER, M. N. (2011). Peace movements worldwide. Santa Barbara, Calif, Praeger.
Gleick, P. H. & Cooley, H. S. (2009). Energy implications of bottled water, Environmental Research Letters, pp1-6, 4.