The plastic tsunami: discovering the shocking state of our seas


Manta rays,swimming & plastic
Manta ray diving trip to Indonesia. Photo by Nick Pumphrey

A friend of mine recently travelled to the island of Bali, Indonesia, with the plan of photographing manta rays. Tourism brochures had promised that Indonesia’s pristine coastal waters were ideal for this type of activity. My friend got his wish and came back with some great photos – but what he wasn’t planning for was the photographs to also document the immense pollution of Indonesia’s seas.

My friend’s experience perhaps isn’t so shocking when one starts looking into the facts and figures. Research suggests that Indonesia is the second largest producer of plastic marine waste in the world. The capital of the archipelago alone, Jakarta, is home to 13.2 million people and generates over 35,000 m³ of rubbish every day, of which nearly 8% is plastic based. Much of this waste never makes it to landfill, ending up instead in rivers and flowing out to sea.

Swimming in plastic
Swimming in plastic-polluted seas. Photo by Nick Pumphrey

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) identifies several causes behind this global environmental catastrophe. These include underdeveloped and insufficient in-land infrastructure to cope with the vast amount waste produced daily, littering practices in the shipping sector and a general lack of awareness amongst all stakeholders.

Marine litter is without a doubt one of the biggest environmental issues of the 21st century, and it is an issue that is getting worse. A recent survey in the UK shows that marine debris on UK shores has increased by 34% between 2014 and 2015. Considering that the UK has a developed waste management infrastructure and that recycling is relatively widespread, this statistic is alarming to say the least.

Swimming with plastic
The plastic tsunami of our seas. Photo by Nick Pumphrey

Indeed, the type of litter found on our shores speaks for itself. The two main sources of marine debris found last year on the UK shores were: microplastics (44.7%) and single use plastics (31.7%), including plastic bags, food containers and bottles. The UNEP is right to highlight a lack of awareness amongst stakeholders, as many of us remain blissfully unaware of the extent of the impact our lifestyle and consumption patterns are having on the state of our seas.

Thankfully, there are at least a few organisations that are highlighting this global issue and taking action. For example Surfers Against Sewage, created in Cornwall, UK, in the 1990’s, has achieved impressive improvements to water quality in the UK. More recently, they developed a clear strategy on to reduce marine debris by 50% by 2020 on UK shores. In the USA, 5Gyres is taking the lead in plastic pollution activism, creating education campaigns to empower people worldwide to take action on this issue. And in Australia, the organisation Take 3 is running a simple  beach clean campaign that encourages everyone to take 3 pieces of litter with them when they leave the beach.

Due to the extent and scale of the problem we, as responsible tourism advocates, may feel powerless to stop this tsunami of plastic threating our ecosystems and livelihoods . However, in reality the nature and causes of the Child looking inside the sea for plasticissue suggest that there is a clear route to improvement. Because of the intrinsic link between tourism and the marine environment, the tourism industry should lead the change needed to tackle the issue by firstly, working closer with organisations that strive to raise public awareness of the impacts of marine debris. And secondly, engage with local communities to help solve the constraints they face to minimize the amount of waste going onto the sea. If we can achieve enough coverage of this global problem through actors of the tourism industry, we might even draw the attention of the big guys to include beach cleans in their CSR strategy and provide further opportunities for the organisations already making an impact.

With special thanks to Nick Pumphrey, ambassador of take 3, for providing these photos. To see more of his great work visit his website.

Ángela Rodríguez
Ángela Rodríguez
Advocate for positive impact travel. Flexible, hard-working and passionated person who puts collaboration and inspiration at the heart of her work. Extensive experience in marketing and communication of sustainable tourism in Spain and Latin America. Avid traveller and climate activist.

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