“Take care of the ocean as if your life depends on it, because it does.” – Dr Sylvia Earle shares her thoughts on single use plastics, marine pollution, and the value of our oceans

Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle shares with Zoe Loftus-Farren of Earth Island Journal the most pressing of marine-related issues, and how we can translate knowledge into action so as to take steps in protecting our oceans – read the article!

“Plastics were a novelty when I was a kid, but now they have become a plague in the ocean. They still serve us well in so many respects. It’s not that all plastics are the problem, but single use plastics where you use something once and throw it away.”

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at AM 10.13.05

At the age of 79, Dr. Earle has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater, giving her the first-hand experience of witnessing radical changes in our oceans such as “the global reach of plastics pollution.”

Noting that while the level of awareness on plastics in the ocean has risen since the 1950s, the scale of loss, destruction and change has escalated along with it. The evolution of single use plastics for example, where plastic items are disposed off almost immediately, has introduced habits that, for the sake of the ocean, “has to stop.”

“It isn’t just trash, not just the unsightliness of it, or even the entanglement of animals that is the problem. It’s is also the influence on the chemistry of the ocean there too. Many toxins are introduced, toxins concentrated around bits and pieces of floating plastic.” – Dr. Sylvia Earle

Despite the destructive habits of our daily lives, Dr. Earle comments that the lack of communication and conversation within the community is the main problem. By not understanding the importance of the oceans, not knowing what exactly it is we are doing to the ocean, and most importantly by not drawing the link between “between the decline of the ocean and the perils that presents to the future of human civilization,” we will see a continuation in the decline of our oceans.

When asked about the one ideology she would instill in people about the ocean, she says “Take care of the ocean as if your life depends on it, because it does.”

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‘Ocean plastic pollution’s shocking death toll on endangered animals’

“Nearly 700 species of marine animal have been recorded as having encountered human-made debris such as plastic and glass according to the most comprehensive impact study in more than a decade. are being harmed or killed by the trash we toss into the seas.”

Emily Gert at TakePart reports on a new review study which examined scientific reports and revealed that hundreds of species of animals are being harmed or killed by marine trash. And of the trash which includes metal, glass and paper, it is “plastic … [which] turned up in almost 92% of animal-meets-marine debris reports,” according to a study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin.


Gall and Thompson (2015) report a total of 44,006 incidents of individual animals across 395 species that had eaten plastic bits or been tangled in plastic rope or netting. Around 80 percent of the time, these encounters injured or killed the animal.

Reports of entanglement in plastic include these critically endangered turtles:

  • 138 hawksbill turtles,
  • 73 Kemp’s Ridley turtles, and
  • 62 leatherback sea turtles.

30,896 reports were of marine mammals tangled in ropes or netting, including:

  • 215 Hawaiian monk seals (critically endangered)
  • 38 northern right whales (endangered),
  • 3,835 northern fur seals and
  • 3,587 California sea lions.

In 174 records, more than 150 species of seabirds were tangled in or eating plastic, including:

  • 3,444 northern fulmars,
  • 1,674 Atlantic puffins,
  • 971 Laysan albatross, and
  • 895 greater shearwaters.

“The researchers stressed that their findings were “an underestimate of the impacts of marine debris” on marine animals.

They noted, however, that least we’re past denying the problem.”


Ria Tan’s annual ICCS article is out!

The tireless Ria Tan who authors, edits and manages WildSingapore has penned her annual ICCS article.

She has done this for many years now and I look forward to it. She has a good sense of the issues because she witnesses the problem when she walks the shore. She has supported ICCS efforts physically about a decade ago when she stood by with her car at the Kranji Mangrove cleanup, ready to whisk a casualty to the hospital!

This year, she responds to a letter in Today Online and weaves a story that addresses many elements, typical of her style, so the reader receives good exposure to the wider picture. Thanks Ria!

Hop over to Wild Shores Singapore to read “Sudden trash build up at East Coast? ICCS swings into action!”

Ria Tan’s annual ICCS article is out!


Confession of a former plastic bottle junkie

This is the confession of a former plastic bottle addict – I was drinking water regularly from disposable bottles which I would discard them every few days. Spoilt by the conveniences of a throwaway society, there was no excuse for my behavior.

In our current time, groups and organizations encourage this addiction, feeling the need to give out free bottles of water at events, conferences (yes, even environmental ones) and corporate functions. Hospitality at the expense of the environment.

A sea of plastic bottles on Singapore’s shores
Every year, during the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore (ICCS), we get a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg problem with thousands of plastic bottles collected along our shores.

In the morning of 11th September 2010 alone, we collected 4,920 plastic bottles from various locations in Singapore. In another single cleanup at Sungei Seletar on 18th September 2010, 1,208 plastic bottles were taken off the shores! All this in clean Singapore? Plastic bottles, improperly disposed, certainly are the bane of our oceans and coastal ecosystems.

Plastic, plastic everywhere
Disposable plastic water bottles lining the shores of Sungei Seletar

A hazard to marine life
Plastic bottles pose a hazard to marine life. They can be mistaken as food by marine creatures and being non-biodegradable, they accumulate indefinitely – posing a permanent threat. The Wildlife Trusts estimated that in the UK alone, 177 species of reptiles, mammals and fish are at risk as a result of consuming litter at sea [see “Plastic waste threat to marine life,” by Juliette Jowit. The Observer, 16 Sep 2007]. Given its sheer volume, plastic is a significant threat in the ocea. Over a long period of time, plastic can break down into very small pieces which can enter the food chain. Even in Singapore waters, the microplastics are prevalent [Ng, K. L. & J. P. Obbard, 2006. Prevalence of microplastics in Singapore’s coastal marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 52(7): 761-767].

“How long ’til it’s gone?” (click to enlarge)

Bring your own water bottle?
Going cold turkey can be tough. I am the North East Zone Captain for the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore, yet I have been unable to eradicate plastic bottles completely from my life. I have often succumbed to a the allure of a old bottle of isotonic drink after a workout. While dining out, I try to avoid bottled drinks and my choices are reduced to water – which sometimes comes bottled! And all my favourite drinks which I have mostly given up, such as green teas and fruit juices, all come in pretty plastic bottles.

So how did I reform myself? Well, I simply bring my own water bottle wherever I go!

In Singapore, water out of our taps are safe for drinking! So why are we BUYING water in bottles?

Disposable plastic bottles should be an alternative rather than the standard option. That would reduce the unnecessary impact of manufacturing plastic bottles and reduce littering on our waterways drastically.

Organisers of outdoor events can contribute to this effort to retrain the masses by actively encouraging everyone to bring their own water. They need only keep an emergency supply at hand – we have exhorted ICCS organisers to do likewise and they are responsive.

There are more options indoors – meeting participants can be provided with reusable glasses and jugs of water or be asked to bring their own water. We can’t behave the way we did twenty years ago; our impact on the planet has been excessive!

And if you should drink from a plastic bottle, the least you can do is recycle it. Proper disposal is important for clean plastic water bottles are recycled in Singapore. Do make the effort to collect and dispose them properly in recycling bins – we really don’t want to see them wash up by the tide on our shores, near or far!

Recycling bins for the proper disposal of plastic bottles

Let’s drink to the good health of the oceans!

A year ago, I switched to carrying my trusty red water bottle wherever I go in the process, I no longer use a disposable plastic water bottle each week and have reduced my consumption by at least 52 plastic bottles. If we all doing this, think of our impact – or rather, our reduced impact!

While we drink to our good health, let us, in all good conscience, be able to raise our glasses to the good health of our oceans and seas too!

Article written in support of Blog Action Day

“Marine rubbish on the rise: report,” by Nicky Phillips, ABC 21 Oct 2009

Marine rubbish on the rise: reportNicky Phillips ABC 21 Oct 09;

The damage caused by marine rubbish and debris is costing the
Asia-Pacific region more than a billion dollars each year, a new
report has found. The report, commissioned by the Marine Resource
Conservation working group of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
(APEC), found debris is increasing in the region's oceans, despite
measures to control it.

Study author Professor Alistair McIlgorm of the National Marine
Science Centre in Coffs Harbour says 6.4 million tonnes of debris
reaches the world's oceans each year. Of that 80% is thought to come
from land based sources, he says. More than half of the rubbish is
believed to be plastic, but McIlgrom says rubber, wood and sanitary
products also add to the problem.

"Poor landfill practices are big contributors to marine debris,
especially in Asia," says McIlgrom. The report also tallied the
economic costs of damage caused to the fishing and boat industries by
marine rubbish in the Asia-Pacific region. "Whether they have to
untangle plastic from a ship propellers or totally replace an outboard
– it's costing industries a lot," he says.

The report used a Japanese economic model, which estimates the damage
caused by marine debris costs governments close to 0.3% of their GDP
every year.

Conservative estimate

"That came to a total of US$1.265 billion across the 21 APEC
economies," says McIlgrom. In Australia, clean up of marine rubbish is
costing close to AU$6 million (US$6.5 million) each year. But these
figures are very conservative he says, and don't encompass the total
impact of marine rubbish. "There are lots of other costs, costs to
wildlife, loss of tourism and lost capital development opportunities,
like building a hotel or resort."

And the report doesn't include the clean-up bill, says McIlgrom. "If
you added the clean-up bill of all of APEC it would be a lot more." He
says what's really worrying is that the amount of marine debris in
oceans is growing with the world's population. "If you took the levels
[of rubbish] in 1980 it was much less than it is today, basically
we've got lazy with our use of plastics."

McIlgrom insists marine debris is an avoidable cost.

Prevention better than cure

The report recommends that governments focus more on preventing
rubbish entering our waterways, instead of trying to control it once
it gets there. "For every 100 units of rubbish that enter the ocean,
15 % float on the surface, 15% collect in the water column near the
shore and the rest sinks to the bottom of the deep ocean," says

With most rubbish originating from land based sources, he says it
makes more economic sense for governments to introduce preventative
measures. "Once debris enters the water and becomes diluted, it
becomes much more expensive per unit of rubbish to pick up." McIlgrom
says governments should implement proper landfill practices, which
would go a long way to reducing the amount of rubbish that ends up in
our water ways.

He says recycling, especially of plastic "really needs attention and
thought". McIlgrom says, good strategy is to reimburse people who
recycle plastic bottles, like in South Australia.

The report also recommends building nets at the end of estuaries,
where rivers or streams meet the ocean, to catch any debris before it
makes its way into open water.

Posted via email from International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

ICC Bangladesh in its 3rd year!

“Choking coastlines,” by Nader Rahman. The Star Weekend Magazine, 6(37), 21 Sep 2007 [see the cover].

“Three years ago it was Muntasir Mamun of this organisation who brought the topic of coastal cleaning closer to the public by arranging Bangladesh’s first participation in the International Coastal Cleanup. He is currently Country Coordinator Bangladesh, for the ICC.

“The idea of a coastal clean up did not come to me over night”, he says. “I actually went to a mountain conservation meet in Japan in 2005, there they first told me of the ICC. I was told to get in touch with The Ocean Conservancy in Washington if I wished to start the project in Bangladesh. The 2005 ICC was soon after my trip, so just a handful of us took part by cleaning as much of Cox’s Bazar as we could.

…Mamun simply took a step in the right direction, and tried to link it to the collective consciousness of the nation.

“In January 2006, I contacted the Ocean Conservancy and filled out their documents”, says Mamum. “They soon sent me a parcel weighing 45 kg full of documents! It was unexpected to say the least. The package contained explanatory posters, brochures, data cards and certificates. But to receive the parcel I had to pay USD 400 out of my own pocket to customs”, he says.”

Funny story that one!

Their organiser had to worry about the tsunami the night before it seems, so kudos to him to having to cope with all that!

“On the appointed day , hundreds of local peoples , school kids joined together at Labonee Beach (Cox’s Bazar) , we are not professional but we have got little experience last year and before. Spilt the crowed in groups and deployed over the shore. Day long program took a break during noon as Friday mid day prayer is holly for us.

We have started sorting the debris after the break. Alas it was quite huge! Thousands of [polythene bags]! Millions of cigarette butts! We are still counting and waiting for all data cards!”

See also “The clean picture,” by Faizul Khan Tanim. New Age, 21 Sep 2007.

“This campaign is more like an awareness program and we want to make sure that the tourists bringing in products, should not dump or litter those product containers here before leaving. We want to make this project big by extending it throughout the coastline and reach up to St. Martins and any other water body. We also want to present the government with collected information and important data regarding the amount of waste, for further study’, said Muntasir.

It was seen that although the bigger waste particles were cleaned and removed, many small wastages still remained on the beach, littered across the coastal area. While asked about those smaller waste items like … nutshells or chewing gum wrappers, both Muntasir Mamun and Hedaitul Helal said they were only wiping those wastes which do not decompose.

Organic wastes like nutshells do not pose threat to the habitat. It is true that the smaller particles do make the beach look dirty but they also need heavy machine suckers or powerful vacuum cleaners to suck in small wastes, and those are very expensive.

Almost all the members associated with cleanup echoed the same notion that their motivation to do such voluntary work came mainly from a sense of social responsibility and working for beautification projects across the country.”

Salon.com: “Plastic bags are killing us”

This year we picked up more than 14,000 bags on the shores!
“Plastic bags are killing us,” by Katharine Mieszkowski. Salon.com, 10 Aug 2007. The most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, the lowly plastic bag is an environmental scourge like none other, sapping the life out of our oceans and thwarting our attempts to recycle it.

“The plastic bag is an icon of convenience culture, by some estimates the single most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions. They’re made from petroleum or natural gas with all the attendant environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. One recent study found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.”

Read the complete article at salon.com

In Singapore, see also:

Breaking the cycle of plastics in the ocean

Ocean Conservancy Magazine, Autumn 2007 – Feature Story: “What Comes Around.” By Andrew Myers.Breaking the cycle of plastics in the ocean

“Honolulu – a researcher comes upon the decomposing remains of a Laysan albatross chick, a “gooney bird,” as it’s known. The dead bird’s white and smoky gray feathers twist in the wind. A few break off and tumble down the beach. Clearly visible through the bird’s denuded rib cage are the remnants of its last meals. Red, blue, yellow, orange—the colors are striking against the feathers and bleached bone. Plastic shards. A bottle cap. A cigarette lighter. No one can say for certain what killed the bird, but there’s enough plastic in its gizzard to limit, if not cut off, the vital nutrients it needed to survive. “

While cleanups battle and analyse the problem, increase awareness and motivate action, we will need a drastic change in human behaviour, even “broad cultural changes” and technological solutions in the search for alternatives and ways to harvest the current plastic load circling in the sea.

Plastic debris – curse of the albatross

Marie Y. Azzarello & Edward S. Van Vleet, 1987. Marine birds and plastic pollution. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser., 37: 295-303.

Abstract: The intrinsic properties and widespread presence of plastic particles in the marine environment have profound effects on birds inhabiting the world’s oceans. Industrial and user-plastics composed of polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene, styrofoam, and polyvinyl chloride are the most prevalent forms of plastic marine pollution.

Their dispersal and accumulation, in average densities of 1000 to 4000 pieces km-2, are controlled by surface currents, wind patterns, and different geographic inputs. Seabirds in the order Procellariiformes are most vulnerable to the effects of plastic ingestion due to their smaller gizzard and their inability to regurgitate ingested plastics.

Planktivores have a higher incidence of ingested plastics than do piscivores as the former are more likely to confuse plastic pellets with copepods, euphausiids, and cephalopods. Hence, diet may be a major factor determining the quantity of plastic ingested. Physiological effects related to the ingestion of plastics include obstruction of the gastrointestines and of subsequent passage of food into the intestines, blockage of gastric enzyme secretion, diminished feeding stimulus, lowered steroid hormone levels, delayed ovulation and reproductive failure.

As plastic manufacture and use increases and subsequent disposal at sea becomes more extensive, the impact of dscarded plastic on birds inhabiting the marine environment may also be expected to increase.

Download the pdf of the paper here.

Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi, Order Procellariiformes),
Otago Peninsula (off Dunedin), New Zealand.
Photo by Anita Gould.