Global economy under threat as plastic litter floats on seas

A group of volunteers collect plastic litter from the ocean. [World Bank]

On a recent voyage around the Lamu Archipelago, a team of marine scientists who were keen to plant mangroves made a devastating discovery.

Empty bottles of the Guaraná Antarctica, a popular soda brand in Brazil, were floating on the Indian ocean waters. 

A closer study revealed that the bottles had floated on the ocean for 9,988.25 kilometres from the festival-crazed beaches of Brazil to Kenya.

The discovery put to light the extent at which ocean litter can get from one end of the globe to the other, with devastating marine effect.

Plastic litter has evolved into a big enemy of oceans, marine life and human health. It poses risks to navigation of ships and is a killer of marine ecosystem services.

Marine ecosystem services include fish harvesting, recreation and tourism and water transport.

According to a study by scientific journal ScienceDirect, marine litter has led to a five per cent decline in marine ecosystem service delivery globally.

This equates to an annual loss of $500 billion to $2.5 trillion (Sh52 trillion to Sh260 trillion) in the value of benefits derived from marine ecosystem services.

The 2019 stock of plastic in the marine environment has been estimated at between 75 and 150 million tonnes. This would equate to each tonne of plastic in the ocean having an annual cost in terms of reduced marine natural capital of between $3,300 (Sh342,000) and $33,000 (Sh3.4 million).

Derrick Muyodi, a marine scientist and and managing director of Ceriops Environmental  Research Organisation, says oceans receive all sorts of pollutants, plastics, chemicals, sewage, metal and micro litter.

"There are less efforts in place in terms of ocean cleanup and policies to fight pollution," he said in an interview with Shipping & Logistics.

He said pollution is affecting marine habitats at an alarming rate and marine life is being lost rapidly.

"Tuna fish have been investigated and found to contain high levels of mercury, which accumulates up the food chain and has been traced to soil on land," Mr Muyodi said.

Coastal beaches are full of  pollutants. Each day tonnes of waste are collected by volunteers and members of Beach Management Units.

"There have been discoveries of plastic 'mountains' in the deep ocean floors. Without proper waste management strategies on land, the situation will be worse at sea," he said.

Kenya is among 30 countries around the globe that have joined the GloLitter Partnerships Project, a global initiative that aims to tackle marine waste.

The project is implemented by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

It aims to help the maritime transport and fishing sectors move towards a low-plastics future.

Discarded fishing gear can also pose a serious risk to fishers since the nets or lines can become entangled in boat propellers or cause engine damage.

There is also an economic impact when fishers lose their gear or fish species are caught in discarded gear. 

Lost containers might also collide with ships. Reducing and preventing marine plastic litter is vital to safeguarding coastal and global marine resources. 

Kenya, through the State Department for Shipping and Maritime, will be leading countries in East Africa in cleaning up oceans through the GloLitter initiative.

"The project will also facilitate the establishment of public-private partnerships to spur the development of cost-effective management solutions for marine plastic litter, including examining how to decrease the use of plastics in these industries and looking at opportunities to re-use and recycle plastic," said Shipping and Maritime Affairs Principal Secretary Nancy Karigithu.

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