Every Sunday night for the past few weeks, millions of viewers have tuned in to watch the BBC’s Blue Planet II. The programme, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, has helped to shine a spotlight on many of the fascinating creatures and features that lie within our oceans. But it has also enhanced public awareness of some of the threats facing them – both in the short and long term.
Here in the UK, scientists have for years been saying that more needs to be done to combat the problems posed by marine litter and microplastics. And the Government has taken notice, with several committee inquiries and the recent Budget announcement examining potential policy measures to reduce plastic waste.
But it is only by creating a sea change in public ways of thinking that we can bring about a positive change for our environment. As well as carrying out research into the sources and impacts of plastic pollution, that is something that for many years we have highlighted as being critical to achieve change.
In 2004, my team were the first to use the word microplastics to describe the microscopic fragments of manmade products in a research publication, it was not a word that many would have comprehended. After all, these fragments can measure a fraction of a millimetre in length, and be less than the width of a human hair.
Individually, it is perhaps hard to see the potential harm they could cause. But when you consider some estimates suggest there are five trillion of these particles floating in our oceans, it becomes a different story.
Our research has shown these items are now everywhere in the oceans, from our most visited coastlines to the remotest parts of the deep seas. It has also shown them in around one third of some 500 fish we examined from the English Channel. We have also shown some of the ways these particles can get into the marine environment.
A washing machine, for example, can release up to 750,000 fibres per wash load, many of which may not be captured by water treatment systems. While a single application of some cosmetic products can contain almost 100,000 plastic microbeads. A whole bottle can contain almost 3million.
These illustrations are merely the tip of the iceberg, demonstrating how our everyday lives and activities relate to the problems.