If a new study offering insights into the cause of tons of trash polluting our oceans and lining island shores is accurate, crews on ships are guilty of contravening international laws regarding the safe disposal of waste — plastic, in particular.
According to details recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, plastic bottles and other debris lining shores of uninhabited islands are not solely the result of lax recycling policies in many countries.
Part of the problem, at least, sits squarely on the shoulders of many shipping companies that operate all around the globe.
Crews are mandated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to hold on to garbage until they reach port. Then they are supposed to dispose of it safely in a regulated manner that does not contaminate our oceans.
However, according to study co-author, Peter Ryan, those rules are being flouted by many ships.
It’s a serious charge to level against shipping companies, but Ryan and his associates have the evidence to back up their claims.
Masses of garbage that drift around the oceans are called “garbage patches” by scientists who study the phenomenon. Ryan is one of those experts; he is director of the Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, and studies seabirds and the plastic waste that threatens them.
After concluding the study, which took place in 2018, Ryan told the science website discovermagazine.com that, “the IMO must tighten up on ensuring ships use port receptor facilities to offload waste.” Ryan, for one, is convinced they are not doing so, at least not often enough.
If ships arrive in port with surprisingly little trash, they must be investigated more thoroughly, Ryan said in October.
His findings were garnered last year during a period when he and his colleagues went to the rather oddly (but appropriately) named Inaccessible Island, which is located exactly halfway between South Africa and Argentina.
Although the island is uninhabited, its shores are awash in garbage. The team was interested in the plastic bottles that were part of the 4,000 items they collected.
After that, the items, they remained nearby for eight weeks, patrolling the island and watching what washed up there.
Upon examining the debris, the team said 90 percent of the bottles had arrived there within the prior two years, a fact they determined by checking the number of barnacles attached to them.
Of those, 75 percent were made at production plants in various Asian countries, but half of the 75 percent were manufactured in China.
Because ocean currents simply can’t carry bottles (or anything else, for that matter) from Asia to Inaccessible Island in merely two years, Ryan and his colleagues determined the bottles were part of intentionally dumped waste from ships that travel the area.
He noted, “You can’t have that many bottles falling off accidentally, day after day.” Hence, he believes the IMO needs to get serious about policing errant shipping companies who flout the rules; otherwise the masses of garbage will just continue to grow in the world’s oceans.
Just two years before, most of the waste was coming from South America, but now Asia dominates in creating the problem. That, Ryan confessed, came as “a bit of a shock.”
The largest and most notorious “garbage patch” exists between California and Hawaii, called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
It is comprised of everything from infants’ diapers and rubber toys to single-use straws, plastic bottles and micro-plastics, which are naked to the human eye.
It continues to grow daily, and threatens birds, who sometimes mistake floating plastic items for food, to fish, who get tangled and die in tossed-away fishing line.
Attempts to lessen the garbage patches by hauling away some of the items have so far been almost useless, practically akin in filling a bathtub with an eye dropper.
But environmental scientists are studying the problem, and with knowledge — and perhaps a little luck — may soon offer solutions that are truly workable.
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In the meantime, scientists like Ryan and his team continue to sound the alarm about careless policies that have allowed the shipping industry to make the problems at sea even worse.