Hunting for Ghost Nets
I have briefly mentioned ghost nets in my first blog post under Le Petit Bleu section, where I described some of the main problems that the Baltic Sea is facing. The issue is so serious however, that I decided to investigate it further bringing you some more details on the dangers to marine environment and biodiversity that ghost nets carry.
Ghost nets are essentially fishing nets that have been lost, abandoned or purposefully tossed away after they are no longer good to use. Since they are usually coated with plastic for enhanced durability, they are not degradable and therefore, become a part of plastic pollution problem worldwide. It is estimated that, in the Polish zone of the Baltic Sea only, we can find up to 800 tonnes of ghost nets, drifting in the open sea with the current or sitting on its bed. In both cases they pose a great, yet relatively unknown, threat to the marine habitat entangling numerous marine species including those endangered. The fishing nets from the Indian Ocean for example, often trap Olive Ridley sea turtles which, even if discovered, are in such a bad condition that they do not survive the rescue process. Entangled animals become an easy target for predators but also die out of dehydration and starvation.
Entrapped animals have also a negative impact on the local fisheries and consequently on the economy. Not only are fish lost to the ecosystem but they are also lost to the fishermen and to the market. Swedish scientists have proved that lost fishing nets continue to serve their original purpose from 20% of its initial catchability in the first 6 months after the net is lost, to 6% in the next two years (WWF). It is worth mentioning here, that the fishing nets covering the shipwrecks are catching fish all the time, posing an extra threat to the shipwreck tourists. Attracted by an outstanding number of sunken vessels sitting on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, divers might get tangled themselves since the ghost nets covering the shipwrecks are hardly visible.
Fortunately, both marine and ocean protection organizations as well as individual projects have taken efforts not only to research the above problem but also to become its solution. Below are the two examples that I came across while doing my research that really amazed me. First, taking place in Poland and supported by World Wide Fund (WWF), is actually the biggest initiative of this kind to be held globally. It involves fishermen from the whole Pomeranian region (North of Poland), scouring through the Baltic waters in search of lost fishing gear. Along with the ghost nets, the fishermen catch a great number of scrap metal and other junk attached to the fishing nets such as telecommunication cables which are a common find during the search. Please watch the below video documenting this amazing expedition!
On the other side of the world, The Olive Ridley Project aims to clean oceans from the lost fishnets, rescue injured turtles and educate the world about the danger of ghost nets and its direct impact on the marine life. It was founded in 2013 to analyze and document the effects of the lost fish nets after a large number of olive ridley turtles were found entangled in them in the Maldives. Up till now they removed 1,300+ ghost nets and other fishing gear fragments from the Indian Ocean. While doing so they found and reported 601 entangled turtles. 48 has been treated in the rescue center and 22 released (Olive Ridley Project), with the rest presumably dead or beyond rescue. I strongly support their mission and encourage you to watch the video below!
To summarize this blog post, I wanted to say that I am very proud of my own country not only because they launched the first ghost net search of this kind globally but mostly because they set an example of how one good cause can bring people across all industries, from different backgrounds to do something amazing TOGETHER. Uniting to save lives, protect the environment and literally, change the world around us for better might be the most rewarding thing the humanity is capable of doing. We have all the power to protect our planet and create the new reality. Let's use it wisely.
I have really got interested in microplastic when I attended the Zero Waste Fairs in my hometown. Before that yes, I was aware of its existence, but I never gave too much of a thought regarding its origin or, perhaps more importantly, its consequences on the water habitat. And do not let the name mislead you...microplastic might be tinny tiny plastic particles that are less than 5mm but its presence has huge impact on the aquatic ecosystem.
Before we discuss the threats to the environment posed by the microplastic, let's first define what exactly microplastic is and what its pathways to the marine environment are. The term microplastic includes all plastics smaller than 5 mm. These may be of primary origin, in the form of industrial elements such as scrubbing microbeads or synthetic fibres washed out from clothing during laundering. The study conducted by Julien Boucher and Damien Friot, that quantified microplastic leakage, showed that primary microplastic can in fact be the major source of plastic pollution in the ocean. Secondary microplastics originate from the fragmentation of larger plastic items into smaller plastic elements once exposed to marine environment. Secondary microplastics are also a result of poor waste management such as discarded plastic bags or lost fishnets. The vast majority (98%) of microplastic, however, is lost in land based activities such as laundering or... driving! When you drive, your tyres push down on the road (so as road pushes up on the car -> kinetic frictional force) with great force that causes abrasion. This in turn leads to loosing of the plastic elements.
So how does microplastic enter the water? The main pathways are through road runoff (66%), wastewater treatment systems (25%) and wind transfer (7%) (IUCN Study). Once in the water microplastic particles can either float or sink. It depends on their density and total weight. Polypropylene, for example, is lighter than the seawater and will widely disperse across its surface. Acrylic, on the other hand, is denser than seawater and will eventually accumulate on the ocean floor, from there entering the food chains. Because of the fact that the release of microplastic is not very obvious, the consequences of a persistent ignorance are much more dangerous. Plastic waste encountered in the form of large, visible pieces is easier not only to spot and tackle, but also bring society's attention to the global problem of water pollution thanks to the powerful visuals such as photos and videos. The negative impact of microplastic has been long neglected but may also have far reaching consequences.
Let's begin with a simple: IT DOES NOT BELONG THERE. As microplastic enters the food chain, its existence threatens the ecosystem. Studies have shown that microplastics in the marine environment have an impact on organisms of all trophic levels— worms, fishes, sea turtles, birds, and mammals (Wright et al. 2013; Lusher 2015). What is interesting is that many organisms not only confuse microplastics with food but also selectively feed on them in place of food (Moore 2008). Since plastic cannot be digested but takes a large part of stomach volume, the feeling experienced can be confused with that of satiation. It may stop the organisms from searching for food and consequently decrease the growth and reproductive rates. What is more, if a plastic particle blocks the gastrointestinal tract it may lead to an immediate death. The consequences for humans stem not only from the fact that consuming the fish, we also consume the plastic it can carry. More dangerous is the ability of plastic to attract highly toxic substances from the environment which can bind to the particles and THEN get consumed.
The invention of plastic changed our lives forever. Above all it simply offers hassle-free solutions (plastic food storage), increases our comfort (transport) and satisfies more superficial needs (use of plastic in clothing and microplastic beads in cosmetics). However, our lives made easier come at a great cost. It affects our planet in so many negative ways, yet we are still resistant of letting it go. Of losing the comfort. In that sense going out of your comfort zone has a whole different meaning. By taking smart, conscious decisions, we not only respect Mother Earth but OURSELVES. It is a high time to realize it affects the whole planet which, in fact, we are only a part of. It accomodates much larger group of living organisms and animals for which it is also a HOME. Home upon which we all depend. We talk about sustainable development a lot but we tend to forget that it is actually our planet that sustains our lives. The best we can do it to take a good care of it.
You will find the materials supporting this article here.
What is the Zero-Waste Movement?
I have to be honest. To write this blog post, and ultimately answer the question above, I had to do some digging. Yes, I was aware of the Zero-Waste community, its values and goals but I never looked closer into its origins, neither did I follow all of its rules. Being semi-aware I have been still recycling, limiting the plastics in my household or taking my own bag with me to do groceries. It just felt like an obvious choice not something tagged on the movement itself. However, attending the Zero Waste expo in my city and researching couple of websites around this topic made me realize there is SO much more to it, and the spread of the movement slowly creeping into my own country amazes and inspires me to do more.
It is quite tricky to define the 'place and date' of the birth of Zero-Waste movement but the term was coiled by Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) and reached its peak publicity between 1998 and 2002. It has been originally established to share the awareness of the economic and social benefits that can be gained if we treat waste as a resource upon which we can build better employment and business opportunities. Zero-Waste movement is about reducing plastic and thus helping our environment, protecting its from further damage, BUT it also promises to produce tangible economic benefits. How? It reduces demand for raw materials, energy and water and with the increasing price of oil and gas, it can really boost the nations' economy. Extracting natural resources is costly so re-using what we already have seems to be the best shot. It became known as a circular model of economy and starts to get increasing attention from the business leaders and big companies worldwide.
Recycling and reusing processes all require people that will take number of activities associated with this movement. That involves collecting, sorting and preparing waste before processing it further down the manufacture lane as well as jobs in composting, repair shops, reuse centers or designing improved products from recycled materials. With a rising number of industries that rely on recyclable materials, this can create a powerful employment niche with new jobs created together with this demand. According to a 2012 study by the European Commission 400.000 jobs can be created in Europe only if we adopt the current EU policies. The new targets that member states will have to meet as of 2018 are as follows:
Can we reach these numbers? Well, it is entirely up to us. There was something said on the Zero Waste expo that really stuck with me. And that is that no law is powerful enough if it does not take people to follow it. Yes, there is number of policies and regulations that aim to hold people and business responsible for the damage they are causing but it is really down to the green moral area of each one of us to make better decisions everyday and contribute to the greater change that can ultimately save our future. Zero-Waste Movement is all about these decisions. It is more than just what we can find on Pinterest or Instagram in the form of new eco ideas for products, cosmetics, travel mugs, clothing etc. or pictures of waste collected in a jar. It is more than a fashion, a trend or a lucrative business for some of its advocates. It is simply about living smartly and consciously. Being interested in what happens to our Earth, what are the consequences of our actions and what can we do alleviate them. It is seeing bigger picture like economic benefits, employment opportunities and it is about changing a social paradigm. From ME to WE. And from acting as we lived in the bubble to fully acknowledging the threat our world is facing right now.
Le Petit Bleu
I was born and currently live in Gdynia - one of the cities in nine littoral states and home to around 90 million people living in the catchment area of the Baltic Sea. People are generally more concerned about the oceans, horrified by the pictures of floating plastic islands or the amount of trash gathering at the coastlines. The Baltic Sea pollution, however, poses a threat on its own, though not easily seen on the surface but rather hidden in its depths. This lack of visual evidence makes it harder for the people to take a problem seriously and understand the many reasons of the poor state of the Baltic Sea marine environment. Some of the main ones include:
Geographical location. The Baltic Sea is surrounded by land. There is only one narrow entrance located between Sweden and Denmark that connects it to the North Sea. This means that water in the Baltic Sea can be exchanged only every 25-30 years which has an adverse effect on its ability to 'clean' itself from the accumulated pollutants.
Shallowness. The Baltic Sea with its average depth of 55 meters is relatively shallow compared to the Mediterranean Sea’s average depth of 1500 meters. This makes it more vulnerable to the external load of pollutants and nutrients runoff compared to other, deeper areas. Shallow and icy waters also increase the chances for major shipping incidents resulting in the outflow of large volumes of oil into the sea.
Human activity. High population density, industrial waste and agriculture production result in large inputs of nutrients much of which is lost to water (nitrates and phosphates) and air (ammonia and nitrogen oxides). Due to a slow water exchange these nutrients accumulate as the sea bottom and contribute to the accelerated process of eutrophication (see definition to the right).
Oil shipments. The marine traffic on the Baltic Sea has increased with the development of Russia's policy to export oil and gas directly from its land and not through the pipelines of transit countries. The risk of accidents resulting in oil spills, however, is very high due to the low temperature of the Baltic Sea for the substantial part of the year and the ice sheets floating on its surface.
Together with unsustainable fishing practices (overfishing; illegal fishing) , marine litter and poor wastewater management (ex. waste water from passenger ships), the above factors make Baltic Sea one of the most threatened marine areas in the world.
Undoubtedly, a strong leadership and genuine commitment from the joint countries is of vital importance in saving this marine ecosystem. However, the future of the Baltic Sea lies not only in the hand of politicians. We have a lot to say too.
You may think 'I would like to help but hey, I cannot change the geographical characteristics of the sea, influence the governments to decrease marine traffic or stop the oil spills from happening'. And you are right. Directly you cannot. But thinking outside the box, connecting causes to the effects and abstract ideas to tangible actions open the door for a whole new way of thinking. And so using detergents without phosphates (one of the two main pollutants in the Baltic Sea), taking your disposable cutlery, plates and barbecue with you after leaving the beach, buying local and seasonal fruits and vegetables (decrease the demand for food transportation) and eating fish that is sustainable fished (not endangered species and not from illegal/untrusted resources) can all improve the state of the Baltic Sea.
In the summer season in my city, people across the country come to enjoy the weather on one of the many beaches spreading along the northern border of Poland. Warned about highly-toxic blue-green algae present in the water they either come into the water despite the warnings or are angry that someone spoils the summer fun. Whatever the case, it both shows the ignorance some still carry in their hearts. Not only with regard to ther health and safety but also the environment. The occurrence of blue-green algae is a direct consequence of the eutrophication and of a changing marine ecosystem. When we start to look at things through the prism of our daily encounters, we reach the true meaning and depth of an issue. And tough sometimes we might not be an ease with that, we need to confront and be ready for the truth that ultimately can save our future.
Wake Up Call.
Writing this, I am actually sitting in my teenage room back at my parents' house, hiding away from the heat wave that took over both my apartment and the entire Europe. In the light of recent tragic events that happened in Greece, I thought it was a good moment to talk about what Greece case had really give us a glimpse of. And that is a global and overwhelming problem of climate change that, as we will later find out, is strongly linked to the core of economy and consequently government action (or rather lack of it) to reduce climate risks.
Let's start with basics. What is a climate change? It is a significant shift in the pattern of weather, and related changes in oceans, land surfaces and ice sheets, which occurs over longer period of time. It is basically a dramatic rise in an average surface temperatures on Earth. Opinions differ as to whether this condition is reversible. Some claim that the process cannot be reversed but it can be stopped. Others, that we are past beyond the tipping point where it becomes irreversible. Either way we definitely reached a critical point from where there will be no turning back unless we take action ourselves both individually and collectively.
Why is the temperature on Earth rising? Climate scientists argue that the cause of current global warming is human abnormal expansion of greenhouse gases namely:
You may ask, ok so which is one is the worst? And the answer would of course be carbon dioxide. It important, however to realize that is it is not a CO2 as such that is to blame but rather human activities that over centuries have altered the natural distribution of greenhouse gases and led to its abnormal levels in the atmosphere. The emission of carbon dioxide has increased more than three times since the Industrial Revolution. It is because our modern economy is based on energy that comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil. In the process, carbon is produced which then combines with oxygen in the air to make CO2. Together with other greenhouse gases, it forms a molecule layer that traps the heat in our atmosphere. Under normal circumstances this heat, coming directly from the sunlight, would be radiated back to the space but instead is absorbed by the greenhouse gases and re-emitted back to the Earth surface causing it to warm up.
The problem and the threat of climate change is more complex that you think. One, because it is global. It affects everyone and everywhere. Some problems are local and they do not matter all that much. They can be fixed 'on the spot'. This one is different. The magnitude of its reach is beyond our immediate control and the stakes are really high. Second, is because it is slow paced. We do not see a dramatic change day by day but it is happening. Slowly but surely. Yes, we are warned. Told that we are reaching our limits, crossing boundaries of safety. Sometimes, we might even take a moment to reflect when we hear something in the news - like we did with wildfires in Greece. Maybe we connect some dots. But wrapped up in our day-to-day responsibilities, we forget just as quickly as we turn the page of our morning newspaper. Third, and perhaps the most challenging, is that energy lies at the foundation of our modern economy. Fossil fuels are the drivers of market power and the true essence of the climate change problem at the same time. Oil industry, for example, generates massive revenues and profits. It is a little wonder why governments are so resistant when it comes to change. And believe me, it is not about living without electricity now. It is simply about balance, thinking where and how do we use our resources and is there a way to cut it. Finally, it is about seeking alternatives and making small choices that together add up to the positive change.
Another dimension of the problem is that the consequences of global warming vary from region to region. Some areas might become dryer, some wetter. Some may benefit from the change (ex. increased precipitation), others may not be able to adapt. Also, the negative impact that a given country has on the expansion of greenhouse gases, varies across nations. It affects all countries but they do not contribute to its effect to the same extent. And so, countries with high population and high levels of industrialization like US, contribute to the devastating outcomes more significantly than let's say - Uganda or other poorer parts of the world, where using energy from fossil fuels is still not very common. In that sense, our individual actions and decisions contribute to the widening of global inequality gap with some countries victimized and others reaping benefits of the ignorance which we live in.
Last but not least the problem is that it is inter-generational. What we do now matters because it will surely take its toll in the future. Maybe it is a wake up call for us to think outside of the box and beyond our circle of family and friends. As abstract as it can be, let's think about people that will live on our Earth in the next 10, 20 or 50 years. They have the same right to enjoy the quality of life as we do right now. It comes down, of course, to a personal decision, as to whether we are willing to give up a little bit of our comfort, a little bit of our time and effort to fight for a better future. Future that might not be our own but that is created right here, right now by a mere act of kindness and selflessness that can literally change people's lives.
Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs asks in his article (A Proposal For Climate Justice, Oct 2012):
"Who owes what to whom as we confront more climate disasters as well as the rising costs of mitigation and adaptation?". I would say we owe respect to the nature, equal chances to others as we are living now, and justice to the generations yet to come.
Plastic is (not) fantastic
Did you know that from nearly 30 million tons of plastic yearly thrown to our bins, only 1,8 million can actually be recycled? This stands for 6% of hope that we start caring about our environment. Yet it is not even close to where we should stand as a society when it comes to managing our plastic waste and protecting our planet.
Not many people know that they are actually many different kinds of plastic with some being targeted by the municipal recycling programs more than others. Knowing the difference can help us make more informed decisions about both environment and our health. Let's take a closer look on some of the most common.
1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE/polyester)
Together with HDPE these are the plastics most frequently included in the community recycling programs. It is largely used in the textile manufacturing and and in food and drink packaging. It is mostly due to its strong ability to maintain liquid and gas barrier - so that we can enjoy our fizzy drink (since carbon dioxide is trapped inside of the bottle) and fresh food (oxygen cannot get in to spoil it). There has been a research made on the relatively high toxicity of PET due to antimony release that might cause respiratory problem, skin-irritation and possible miscarriage. This has not yet been proven but as they say - better safe than sorry.
2. High density polyethylene (HDPE)
Mostly used in grocery and garbage bags as well as shampoo bottles, this is probably the most widespread type of plastic in the world. HDPE have the most basic chemical structure which makes it very use to process and use, especially in packaging. The polymer chains they are made of align very easily and therefore come out as more resistant, stronger version of polyethylene. Since HDPE packaging is popular for household detergents, it can be reused only as a non-food, non-drink containers. HDPE products are safe and commonly recycled.
3. Polyvinyl chloride (V/Vinyl/PVC)
One of a kind type of plastic which whole life cycle is highly toxic. From manufacturing to disposal, it poses a serious threat to both environment and our health. What is even worse is that this plastic is very rarely recycled. Why? Because it contaminates the recycling stream making it even more dangerous. Fortunately its production has decreased significantly but since it is cost-effective, PVC is still being used in many industries across the world. You can find it in toys, shower curtains, take away food packaging but also blood bags, window frames and credit cards.
4. Polystyrene (PS)
We know this one very well from the disposable coffee cups and take away food containers. It can be very easily formed which together with low production cost make it versatile and popular in many industries. You can also find in disposable cutlery, egg boxes, dvd cases and bike helmets. The recycling rate is again very low because PS is very hard to recycle. What is more, disposable coffee cups are usually made of a combination of plastic and paper which makes it extra hard to recycle. It can however make a way back through recycled packaging and thermal insulation.
It is hard to imagine our life without plastic. And I don't ask you to do it. It is probably impossible to eliminate plastic completely but we can diminish its use and consequently its negative effect on the environment. Nowadays, there are so many alternatives it is really only up to us to choose the right thing. Sometimes the solutions are on the plate, sometimes they might need a little help. Here is the challenge for you: On the next visit in your favorite coffee shop do ask about eco-friendly disposable coffee cup. Even if they don't have it, the more people will ask the more likely it is they will start considering eco alternatives. It is a basic rule of supply and demand. You can also take coffee in a ceramic mug instead! Not only it is a better experience but it saves the plastic tops and cardboard heat shields too. Also, read about fair trade coffee choices in my previous blog post here.
Sometimes we ask: Ok, but what will get out of it? Well, quite a lot really! Starting from a discount in main coffee chains for using reusable cup, to tastier and healthier food (glass food containers; fresh bread) to finally simply being cool when pulling out that sustainable cup in your library or bringing groceries in paper bags home. Doesn't matter if your motivation is saving, image, health factors or genuine concern for our planet. We might have different reasons to become more aware of the environmental issues and the consequences of our actions. What matters is that by the end of the day we can add to this 6% of hope and see the change we are making.
But First Coffee
It starts quite simply. With a cup of delicious, aromatic coffee that, let's be honest, just make everything better. From beginning our day with it, to the mid-afternoon pick me up by our colleagues at work, coffee makes also most powerful and quickest networking tool. If coffee makes everything better, do you think it can make our world quite literally better too? Most definitely yes! Please carry on reading to find out how by drinking coffee we can contribute to saving our world!
When we reach to the coffee machine in the office kitchen in the morning, we don't really give too much thought where did it come from and what is its impact on our environment and society. Let's introduce the positive change and order coffee with Fairtrade Mark instead. We hear about it a lot but sometimes we are unsure what exactly stands behind this label. Below you will find some key facts.
A key goal however is to ensure fairness and justice in trade through increased transparency. Choosing Fairtrade products is one, let's talk about plastic waste.
We can also help to cut the emission of greenhouse gases and the amount of wastage linked to the production and transport of over 2,5 billion disposable coffee cups that every year land on garbage damp in the USA only. Let's drink coffee in our favorite porcelain or recyclable cup. Yes, you have to wash it but it is yours and no-one else has touched it before you:) Plus, it is estimated that we will use it around 3000 times throughout our lives which means reducing wastage by 30 times and air pollution by 60 times. Now, multiply it is by the number of employees in your company, then by city, country, continent... quite impressive, isn't it?
I love coffee. In fact I am drinking it right now as I write this post (fine..there is a cookie too). With something so common and wide-spread as coffee, our choices really become powerful. And if we can make a difference simply by choosing what kind of coffee (that usually tastes better too!) we drink, why wouldn't we?