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Plastic Oceans (Plastic in our playground!) Part 1 - Plastic bags

by Ian Thomson on 20 May 2012
Plastic in the sea . ..
The ocean is our playground. We sail on it, we swim in it, we fish from it and without it we don't have 60-80% of the world's oxygen........So why do we abuse it?

The reason we abuse it is because most of us don't even realise we are. Covering 70% of the planet, our oceans seem to cope with everything we throw at it, right? Well think again.

So let's go back to the beginning. When we were kids at school we were all taught to clean up all the trash in our playground. So why did we change as we grew older. For many of us sailors, the ocean is our new playground, yet we throw our trash in it all the time, not directly, but we certainly contribute.

Let's pick two items that are incredibly numerous in our oceans and cause great issues for creatures living in the ocean and the ocean itself, let alone creating health risks to us.

Plastic bags and plastic water bottles What do these items have in common? They have both been created for 'Convenience'.

This is where it all began for Ocean Crusaders. As a professional skipper in the Whitsundays I began pulling Dead Sea turtles out of the water so they could be inspected by marine parks. The key moment came when one of the turtles I pulled out was found to have a plastic bag formed perfectly in its stomach. It had died of starvation but not before trying to eat 12 cigarette butts, a plastic water bottle cap and 1/2 a coke can. I set out to educate people of the issue and this is my crusade.

Our world uses somewhere between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags every single year. They are big numbers but let's put those numbers into perspective. We see these numbers and we go, O.K that's big but have you ever tried to count to one million, let alone one billion or one trillion. To count straight through from one to 1,000,000 will take you 11 days. Yep, that's right 11 days. Try 32 years to count to one billion. You cannot count to one trillion in your lifetime.

Or let's put it another way, grains of rice. To get one million grains of rice you need 25 litres (6.5 gallons) of rice. So multiply that by 1,000 to get one billion. So you need 25,000 litres of rice (6,500 gallons).

So let's look at those numbers again. We use somewhere between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags every year. Based on 500 billion, if we joined them end on end they would circumnavigate the world a whopping 3.1 million times. Imagine laying them out flat, we could wrap our world hundreds of thousands of times.

So now you understand the scale of the issue, let's go a step further. This is just plastic shopping bags. Add to this figure the plastic used to wrap bread, toilet paper and what about the plastic that pretty much every item in the world is packaged in. It is a massive number that the plastic manufacturers love but our environment hates.

Plastics are like diamonds.........they last forever!!!!!

This is my favourite saying as it is so true. Plastic will never go away. It does not break down, it breaks up.....into millions of smaller pieces that break up further through a process called photo degradation. In samples taken from the North Pacific Garbage Patch 10 years ago it was shown that pieces of plastic the size of plankton were floating around imitating this micro-organism.

In fact there was a ratio of six pieces of plastic to every plankton. Studies last year showed an increase to 45:1 and this is before the garbage from the Japanese Tsunami in March 2011 makes it to this region, believed to be another 1.5 million tonnes of trash floating around the north pacific.

The standard single use plastic bag will be around for over 1,000 years before it begins to photo-degrade. So with 500 billion of them added to our world every year, we are creating a problem we cannot clean up. That's probably why there is enough rubbish in the North Pacific to cover the entire country of Australia 3m (10ft) deep. 50% of plastic bags that make it to the ocean come from landfill so putting them in the bin is not a solution.

When you add to these statistics the fact that 100,000+ marine creatures and one million sea birds die because of plastic suffocation or entanglement every year, it is time for all of us to change our habits and as ocean users, we should be leading the way.


You all know the alternatives for shopping bags. It's only because we are lazy that we don't use them as often as we should. Just remember to put them back in your car when you've unpacked the shopping so they are there when you want them next. If you do need to use plastic bags for rubbish bins etc. use compostable bags that by law have to decompose within a short period of time, usually six months maximum pending your country.

If we don't make changes now, we'll be sailing on oceans of plastic before we know it, clogging our engine intakes and contaminating the fish we all love to eat, or worse, slowing us down when we race.

Say no to plastic bags.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Ocean Crusaders was founded by Ian Thomson in June 2010 after setting the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of Australia. He is on a crusade to educate the world of the issues our oceans are facing. An online education program is available for primary school teachers to present to their students or for parents to present to their children. Visit www.OceanCrusaders.org for more details.

Sailors should sign their yacht up to the 'Ocean Safe Certification' program to show their support for the campaign here and don't forget to like us on our Facebook page. Part 2 in the series focuses on Plastic Water Bottles.

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