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Plastic waste in the oceans

A new BBC nature documentary series presented by Sir David Attenborough, "Blue Planet II", is being currently shown on TV in the UK. The first episode of the new series was broadcast last Sunday evening. It looks like Attenborough is going to use this documentary series to raise awareness of plastic waste in the oceans, in addition to using his documentaries as a platform to raise awareness of man-made global warming (he's been doing the latter since 2006, following the BBC's '28Gate' climate change seminar), according to this article in the Guardian from a few weeks ago:

attenborough urges action on plastic

A few extracts from the article:

"Sir David Attenborough has called for the world to cut back on its use of plastic in order to protect oceans. His new BBC TV series, Blue Planet II, is to demonstrate the damage the material is causing to marine life.

Speaking at the launch of Blue Planet II, which will be broadcast 16 years after the original series, the broadcaster and naturalist said action on plastics should be taken immediately and that humanity held the future of the planet “in the palm of its hands”.

His comments come amid growing global calls for cutbacks in the use of plastic. Last week, the former boss of Asda, Andy Clarke, said supermarkets should stop using plastic packaging."

"Attenborough said rising global temperatures and plastic were the biggest concerns for the ocean. “What we’re going to do about 1.5 degrees rise in the temperature of the ocean over the next 10 years, I don’t know, but we could actually do something about plastic right now,” he said."

"Attenborough, 91, did not specify what could be done, but cutting back on plastic packaging and plastic bags in supermarkets would be a major step.

He said everyone’s actions had an impact on the ocean. “We have a responsibility, every one of us,” he said. “We may think we live a long way from the oceans, but we don’t. What we actually do here, and in the middle of Asia and wherever, has a direct effect on the oceans – and what the oceans do then reflects back on us.”"

My own guess regarding the main cause of this plastic waste problem, which seems to be a relatively recent problem (I've only heard anybody talking about it in the last five years or so), is that people in developing countries that are undergoing rapid economic growth probably don't have such things as organised refuse collection (garbage collection), and are just throwing their rubbish in rivers or the sea. The UK (and probably developed countries in general) has had municipal waste management since the dawn of "the plastic age" (which is generally reckoned to have started around 1930), and plastic waste is generally small enough to fit in a dustbin, so the UK contribution to this problem will be negligible.

But Attenborough seems to be taking the politically correct line that citizens of all countries are equally responsible. We are even already carrying out some of this cutback in the use of plastic in the UK thanks to the Green lobby - an example being where UK citizens are charged a 5p tax to be supplied with a plastic bag by a shop (apparently the tax is not collected by the UK government, it goes to 'good causes' selected by the shop, which I suspect might often be environmental charities - so the Green lobby has effectively created a new income stream for itself in taxing plastic).

I did a bit of Googling to see if anybody has done any research into who is actually causing the plastic waste problem, and found this Daily Mail article:

ocean plastic comes from 10 rivers

According to some German researchers, 88% to 95% of plastic waste in the oceans is coming from only ten rivers. Eight of the 10 rivers are in Asia, the other two in Africa. The main countries responsible for the plastic waste appear to be China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Re: Plastic waste in the oceans

There is a chance of course that we are just outsourcing the problem with our "recycling" programs. We carefully keep plastic out of our environment by putting them in our recycle bins. The recycle bins get picked up carefully by our Sanitation Engineers. The Sanitation Engineers deliver them to the collection facility. The collection facility bundles everything up and then sells it to China...


I have read other research pointing to a vanishing problem. They filtered sea water through various levels of sieves and plotted the amounts of plastic by size. There is a size of plastic where it stops appearing in the water. One answer is that it is being eaten by animals.

Re: Plastic waste in the oceans

That's an interesting theory Brad, if developed countries are contributing to the 'plastic waste in the oceans' problem to any extent, it is probably through the practice of sending plastic waste abroad for 'recycling'. If the recyclers in developing countries can't make use of all the plastic waste they import, they may just dump the surplus in rivers.

After doing a bit of research, I found that China is the world's predominant recycler of plastic waste:

China and plastic waste recycling

The EU apparently exports 87% of the plastic waste it collects to China, including Hong Kong. But China has recently announced a policy where it intends to cut back substantially on importing foreign waste from next year onwards, and will recycle its own domestic waste instead, so much of the plastic waste collected in developed countries may have nowhere to go. If China recycles its own plastic waste, that will obviously keep some of its own plastic waste out of the rivers.

One country I was expecting to be a big contributor to the 'plastic waste in the oceans' problem was Mexico, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Mexico is notorious for having a litter problem, as discussed in this US newspaper article from ten years ago:

Mexico litter problem

Rubbish gets thrown into rivers in Mexico (the article mentions an incident where the Grijalva River got clogged with trash in a narrow gorge), but it may be that the geography of their rivers is such that not much gets carried into the sea.

Re: Plastic waste in the oceans

Time to update this thread, as it looks like the Blue Planet II episode which was going to raise awareness of the plastic waste issue (or the first episode, if it turns out that the issue is being covered in several episodes) was broadcast last Sunday. I didn't watch this episode myself, but the reaction of the relatively new UK environment secretary, Michael Gove, is summed up by this Daily Telegraph article from a few days ago:

Gove reaction to episode

"Michael Gove has vowed to take action over plastic pollution in the oceans after being "haunted" by Sunday night's episode of Blue Planet.

In the episode, which drove some viewers to tears, a pilot whale carried the carcass of its dead baby around for days.

Sir David Attenborough, narrating the episode, suggested the calf was poisoned by its mother's milk, which could have been contaminated by plastic pollution.

Also in the show was a baby turtle, which crew members saved after it became tangled in a plastic net."

As I said in the starting post of the thread, we Brits don't really have to do anything about this. We cracked this potential problem many years ago, over 140 years ago to be precise, when the Public Health Act of 1875 was passed which required local authorities to collect domestic waste and introduced the concept of householders being provided with 'movable receptacles' or dustbins. It is the developing world that doesn't bother with the concept of a dustbin, and is throwing its plastic waste into rivers.

But if we have a 'hard Brexit' (as I'm expecting), and the UK ends up outside the EU Customs Union, then as a born-again independent trading nation we do have the option to raise tariffs on imported goods against countries that dump plastic waste in rivers (if we did feel so strongly about the issue). That would probably be the best action we could take. It's not politically correct to blame the developing world for anything, but they appear to be the main culprits for this plastic waste problem.

Attenborough's suggestion that the pilot whale's calf was poisoned by plastic also sounds a bit dubious to me, so I checked whether there has been any criticism of this claim in the news media. I found this Daily Mail article where an assistant professor in environmental sciences accused Attenborough of peddling fake news:

criticism 1

There was also apparently an article criticising the claim published in the Times newspaper, which is behind a paywall, but one of the BBC bias monitoring blogs, "Is the BBC biased?", has produced a blog post giving a good idea of the content of the Times article:

criticism 2

"The Times reports that the BBC has been accused of "not making clear that it had no evidence linking the calf’s death to plastic" despite having made the dead calf "the main focus of a section of the documentary devoted to marine plastic pollution".

Worse, the BBC's main 'defence witness' has spoken out on behalf of 'the prosecution':

The BBC admitted yesterday that it did not know how the calf had died. It claimed the link to plastic waste had been endorsed by Paul Jepson, a vet specialising in whales at the Zoological Society of London who advised the Blue Planet II team. Dr Jepson told The Times that no samples were taken from the dead calf. He said it could have died from a natural cause or chemical pollutants could have been a factor."

Re: Plastic waste in the oceans

Another update - it looks like the final episode of Blue Planet II due to be broadcast next Sunday is going to be the main episode in the series that pushes the environmental causes according to the Guardian:

final episode of Blue Planet II

"The world’s oceans are under the greatest threat in history, according to Sir David Attenborough. The seas are a vital part of the global ecosystem, leaving the future of all life on Earth dependent on humanity’s actions, he says.

Attenborough will issue the warning in the final episode of the Blue Planet 2 series, which details the damage being wreaked in seas around the globe by climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and even noise.

Previous BBC nature series presented by Attenborough have sometimes been criticised for treading too lightly around humanity’s damage to the planet. But the final episode of the latest series is entirely dedicated to the issue."

I expect that Michael Gove will subsequently announce that he was greatly affected by this episode as well.

Gove's behaviour is a bit strange - when he was made environment secretary a few months ago, many were expecting him to take the Green blob on, not capitulate to it. It was actually Gove, as the education secretary, who invented the useful term 'the blob' to describe the nature of the left-liberal opposition to his attempts to introduce reforms in the education sector. Later on Owen Paterson, just after losing his job as environment secretary, extended the idea to the Greenies, describing them as the 'Green blob'.

The cynical interpretation might be that Gove is trying to improve his prospects of becoming the next Conservative party leader in the event that the party asks Theresa May to stand down as leader before the next general election. There are quite a few Green-leaning people in the Conservative party, and showing concern for the environment is probably regarded as a positive attribute in a leader. The Conservative Home website runs a monthly poll of a sample of party members, and currently Gove is up to second place as the choice for the next party leader, just ahead of Boris Johnson, but behind Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Gove doing well in next party leader poll