News sources frequently contain reports of whales being found dead, often killed by human activity. Plastic pollution in the planet’s oceans features largely as a culprit. A recently reported story concerned a 30-foot sperm whale found dead off Kapota Island, Indonesia. The whale’s stomach was found to contain over 6 kilograms of plastic waste. This included plastic cups, plastic bottles and even plastic sandals. Apart from causing internal injuries, plastic waste can block the digestive system and prevent absorption of nutrients.
Media outlets worldwide carried this shocking story. Why are we so shocked?
Perhaps it is a collective guilt for being part of the problem that causes this situation. Since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series (BBC 2017) highlighted the enormous scale and gravity of ocean pollution, public awareness has increased, and with this, pressure on governments to address the issues. Another BBC production, Drowning in Plastic (2018) shocked audiences with graphic investigation of the amount of plastics ingested by seabirds and sea mammals.
The Plastics Problem
- 1862 Alexander Parkes demonstrated the first man-made plastic. Called parkesine, it was manufactured from cellulose.
- 1907 The development of Bakelite, first synthetic plastic, based on fossil fuel.
- 1946 Plastics developed further for consumer products, after production quadrupled during WW2 to assist in war supplies.
- 1965 Patent by a Swedish company of first polyethylene shopping bag. Use rapidly became adopted Europe-wide and then worldwide.
- 1970s As early as this, concerns were being raised about amounts of plastic on the sea floor and its possible effects on marine life.
- 1990s Industry-wide use of micro beads in cosmetic products.
- 1997 The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is discovered, a vast ocean area of floating plastic and other waste.
- 2010 Global production of plastic hit 270 million tonnes
Individuals in many countries are clear about the need for change. A Greenpeace- commissioned survey found that 89% of people are concerned about ocean plastic pollution. Many individuals are willing to take the measures they can, to reuse and reduce use of plastics. In the UK, concerned volunteers take part in an annual British Beach Clean, organised by the Marine Conservation Society. 2018 is the event’s 40th year. The 2017 event, the Guardian reports, saw volunteers collecting “718 bits of rubbish from every 100 metres cleaned – 10% more than in 2016.”
Such voluntary efforts are vital, but the battle is still uphill while action is not taken comprehensively at international and government level. While many governments accept the need for action, they hesitate to legislate boldly, because of the conflict between what is clearly necessary and the profit-driven manufacturing that drives ever-increasing plastic production.
Organisations such as Greenpeace engage with companies to put pressure on them to change their practices, with the weight of public opinion behind them. Recently, shoppers in supermarkets across the UK spent a day returning plastic packaging to supermarket customer services, politely explaining why. Not unaware of the shift in public perception, many manufacturers have committed to finding ways to reduce plastic in the future. How far ahead in the future is open to question.
The title of this piece is taken from a campaign by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group (#NotWhaleFood) to raise awareness and support action.