How much plastic is in your body? How can superyachts help? And will the ocean save our species? Two of the world’s leading experts on plastic and ocean health reveal some surprising truths about one of the world’s biggest polluters, and why there is still room for hope...
Last March scientists at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit published the results of a study that screened the blood of 22 randomly-selected healthy adults. It found microplastics in 17 of them. Half the cohort revealed the presence of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the material from which plastic milk bottles are made; a third contained polystyrene; and a quarter the polyethylene commonly used in plastic bags.
“I haven’t had my blood tested yet,” says Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, “but I can guarantee we’ve all got plastic in our bodies. What is the long-term health risk of that?”
“We may not be able to see it, but plastic is in every living organism,” agrees Frederikke Magnussen, the Danish-born co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet, at whose London home we are talking and who has known Thomson since 2017, when they met at the Volvo Ocean Race Ocean Summit in Alicante. In other words, plastic pollution affects not just marine life, but us all. “The ocean has been so forgiving that we have not realised how much plastic is actually in there,” says Magnussen.
“We know it’s everywhere,” agrees Thomson. “And it’s only going to get worse.” Even so, Fiji-born Thomson believes there is still time to turn the tide, so to speak. Having been appointed the Pacific-island nation’s ambassador to the UN in 2010, he served a term as president of the UN General Assembly in 2016, during which time he organised the UN’s first ever Ocean Conference. This resulted not just in his present role, but in the 14th of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – “to conserve and use sustainably the oceans, seas and marine resources” – which in turn led to the UN’s ongoing Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, an initiative that will establish a databank for ocean research.
“The ocean is probably going to be the saviour of our species,” he says. “It’s where we’re going to get our foods from, not fish but some kind or marine tofu. It’s where we’re going to get our medicines from in the post-antibiotic age, as we proved during covid.” (The drug plitidepsin, derived from the sea squirt Aplidium albicans was found to be an anti-viral effective against SARS-Cov-2.) “It’s going to be our energy source. And yet we only know about 20 per cent of all there is to know about it scientifically.”
Hence the need for a databank “that is accessible to everybody: to scientists in top universities around the world but also to the young Einstein who’s sitting in the back blocks of some town in Bangladesh. Who knows where the great ideas are going to emerge from?”
And this, he adds, “is where superyachts come in”. Because if every boat were to carry a transmitter (a technology in development though not yet readily available) on its hull that could record and transmit to the UN databank, via satellite, acidification levels, temperature, salinity, depth – “everything that’s very measurable and communicable by this little device” – global knowledge of the ocean would be vastly augmented.
Earlier this year the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi also endorsed a resolution “to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024”. This, Thomson hopes, will embolden the UN’s 193 member states to legislate against plastics pollution because although “beach clean ups are great, they’re only one end of the spectrum,” he says.
Some governments are already beginning to take steps. Take, for example, French legislation that from 2025, all new washing machines in France will have to have a microfibre filter, a requirement that should in part reduce the estimated global annual discharge of 500 tonnes of fibres from synthetic clothes in the world’s waterways. Magnussen hopes other nations will take France’s lead. “We’ve been looking at fashion, and how much plastic is in our clothes. On every label it really should tell us, and there should be a filter on every washing machine. Because one family of four is washing one plastic bag’s worth of plastic a week.”
Thomson also points to the Kenyan government’s draconian ban on plastic bags. (Merely possessing one carries a hefty fine, even a jail term.) “I do think we need to start legislating,” he says. “Why isn’t it a heavily finable thing if you are seen throwing a cigarette butt down or a face mask.” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US estimated that by November 2021, an extra 25,000-plus tons of pandemic-related plastic waste was discharged into the oceans. “Proof,” says Magnussen, “that we are addicted to this throwaway culture. These are small things, yet the plastic crisis is vast. And what’s visible is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Bans do work, says Thomson, pointing to the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty ratified by all members of the UN in 1987 and designed to protect the ozone layer. “The industry was saying that if they were stopped from using CFCs, then we wouldn’t be able to have fridges anymore. I remember it well. I come from Fiji. I thought: no cold things, that’s not going to be good. But now there are no more CFCs. The ozone layer is closing. We’re not all dying of skin cancer. And we still have fridges.”
So what is to be done in the short term? On a micro level, we should be doing all we can to resist using single-use plastics, says Thomson. “I was born in 1948, long enough ago to remember a world without them,” he says. His epiphany came “at the age of about 10. We had a sort of smokers’ club at our school. There was a guava patch where we’d sit and pull out our ciggies at lunchtime. And I remember the day one boy pulled a Bic lighter out of his pocket. We were all very interested and tried it. And then someone said: where do you fill it? “It’s plastic,” he said. “You just chuck it away.’” Thomson was shocked. “Not long after that we started getting those Bic pens too. And within the year they were washing up on our beaches. Back then plastic production was about a hundredth of what it is today. But even in an isolated place like Fiji it was turning up.” Thomson has deplored waste ever since.
Magnussen shows us her micro handbag, which looks like leather but is actually made from a plant-based material and involved no plastic binders or coating. “We need to be using products that do not harm nature at the end of life. We need to find solutions for big businesses. They find it very difficult to wean themselves off this amazing toxic, unforgivable material.”
Magnussen shows us her micro handbag, which looks like leather but is actually made from a plant-based material called Mirum, which is derived from coconut husk, rice hulls and cork, and involved no plastic binders or coating. “[The car brand] BMW will soon be using it,” she says. “A Plastic Planet works with some of the biggest polluters in the world - the Unilevers, the Kraft Heinzes – we need to find solutions for big businesses and help them use products that do not harm nature at the end of life. They find it very difficult to wean themselves off this amazing toxic unforgivable material.”
Ultimately, says Thomson, “we have to turn plastic into a circular system.” By which he means that almost all plastic needs to be recycled. This would necessitate the elimination of products – such as sachets, the use of which A Plastic Planet have longed campaigned against – that cannot be recycled.
“There should be laws against putting small things in plastic,” says Magnussen. Unlike Thomson, Magnussen remains sceptical that recycling is the answer – “so little of the world’s plastic is recycled – but we could start by banning plastic waste being shipped around the world to Indonesia, Poland, Turkey… Every single country needs to deal with its own waste.”
But Thomson points to UN research that shows that “a comprehensive circular economy could reduce the volume of plastics entering the ocean by over 80 per cent by 2040. Let’s be realistic: plastic is not going to go away,” he says. “But if oil companies are prepared to change and governments are prepared to legislate, and we can create a circular economy, then plastic has a place. That’s where our salvation will lie.” As Thomson and Magnussen prove, there is no single answer, but the more people who try to tackle it, the swifter – and greater – the result will be.Read More/Ocean Talks 2022 digital event to commence on World Oceans Day