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Plastic Waste: How Sailors Pollute the Sea


Plastic waste reaches even the most remote regions. Now researchers have analyzed flotsam on an island in the South Atlantic. They draw surprising conclusions about where the waste came from - and how it got into the sea.

Penguins, albatrosses, duck petrels - and the flightless Atlantis Rally, which is nowhere else on this planet: On a 15 square kilometer Inaccessible Iceland offers home to an impressive bird life. Since 2004, the island in the South Atlantic belongs to the World Natural Heritage of UNESCO. People do not live here permanently - but their legacy makes the animal world more and more difficult.

Above all, more and more plastic bottles are landing on the beaches of the volcanic island, which is almost 3,000 kilometers west of Cape Town. There have been investigations of flotsam since the eighties. A team led by Peter Ryan from the University of Cape Town reports in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" that researchers on the west coast of the island found more than 3,500 pieces of litter on 1.1 kilometers of coast in 2009. In 2018 around 7400 finds with a total weight of about five tons were counted.

Both in 2009 and in 2018, bottles and similar containers made up the largest subgroup of waste, with their share increasing from 29% to 34%. 98 percent of the bottles found were made of plastic, almost exclusively of polyethylene terephthalate (PET, 87 percent) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE, just under 13 percent). Most bottles whose production date was decipherable were one to two years old and contained drinking water.

Peter G. Ryan / DPA

Researcher Maelle Connan with plastic waste: Inaccessible Iceland littered

Around 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year worldwide - with an annual growth rate of eight percent. Parts of it get into the oceans and accumulate there, especially in the center of sea swirls to actual garbage carpets. "As a result, the coasts of islands near these zones often experience unusually large amounts of plastic waste, even though they are far from their large regions of origin," writes the team. (Read here a detailed analysis of where the plastic in the oceans comes from.)

Expected share of global plastic waste mismanagement in 2025

Mismanagement in this case describes the risk of plastic waste entering the oceans unchecked.

No data

0.0 - <0.1

0.1 - <0.5

0.5 - <1

1 - <2.5

2,5 - <5

5 - <10

10 - <20

20 and more

It was interesting how the origin of the bottles changed: While in the eighties two thirds came from South America, in 2009 Asia was just ahead. In 2018, three quarters of the bottles came from Asia, more than half were made in China. South America still accounted for 20 percent, Africa and Europe for two percent each.

Plastic bottles from Africa and South America would be flushed to the island by the South Atlantic whirlpool, lasting one to two years for most of the regions of origin on the east coast of South America. For the bottles from Asia, this takes much longer; Therefore, the researchers suspect another entry point: they probably do not come from the countries themselves, especially since garbage from China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea mainly in the North Pacific drive. They also exclude exports as sources, as China supplies hardly any water to South Africa and South America.

Rules are not well controlled

Instead, the scientists assume that the bottles of ships were disposed of directly into the sea, especially by merchant ships. Trade has quadrupled on the seas from 1992 to 2012, they write. Thus, in 2016, more than 2,400 cargo ships passed through the Tristan da Cunha archipelago to which the island belongs.

This waste disposal is prohibited by the MARPOL Maritime Pollution Convention. The regulation must urgently be better controlled, the team demands.

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"I think this study is extremely important because, as it has so far only a few studies show that the amount of plastic waste in the oceans has increased significantly over the past decades," commented Lars Gutow from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research ( AWI) in Bremerhaven, which was not involved in the work. The conclusions of the researchers are plausible and understandable. However, controlling the waste disposal of ships is very difficult.

Source: spiegel

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