Durban - Marine scientist Caroline Reid, co-ordinator of the KZN Marine Network, told The Independent on Saturday of the full extent of the environmental degradation that plastics cause to our oceans.

Reid describes herself as a scuba diver and instructor, a fisherman and a spear-fisherman: “anything to do with the ocean and I’m there”.

The network is a civil society body that helps co-ordinate activities along the KZN coast. “We keep each other in the loop and make everything more efficient,” she says. 

These are eight of her horror facts not many people may know, about what plastics are doing to the ocean.

1. Plankton is now outnumbered 6-1 by plastics: micro plastics have been found in plankton, the basic building blocks of the ocean, then the bigger fish eat plankton and plastics accumulate in their organs. And plastics will find their way into the human food chain. “Even if you don’t eat fish, sardines full of plastic from the oceans are fed to chickens,” she says. “There’s not a human in the world who doesn’t have plastic in them somewhere.”

2. A garbage truck a minute is emptied into the oceans: She tells how in cities like New York, which has no landfill sites, garbage is compacted and dumped at sea. There’s a floating island of plastics the size of France in the South Pacific.

3. A million sea birds die each year because of plastics: Reid also points out that 100 000 aquatic mammals suffer the same fate. This is through either eating plastics or getting caught in plastics.

4. Single-use plastics like the shopping bag have an average use time of 22 minutes: They take about 1000 years to degrade. Sweet wrappers and chip wrappers are even worse in that they’re not recyclable.

5. Plastics have been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench: It’s barely explored, yet plastics have been found at the deepest point on Earth with a known depth of 11 000m, that’s almost 1.3 times the height of Everest. There’s fear among scientists this may be smothering a little-known marine organism which, like plankton, may be one of the building blocks of marine life, she says.

6. What you see above the ocean is only a fraction of the problem: Only 46% floats, the remaining 54% sinks, Reid says. She tells a story of how to get any work done in the harbour and to get to the bottom of the bay, you need to get a dredger out to remove all the submerged plastics.

7. The nurdles are back: During the massive storm that hit Durban in October last year, two containers of them were washed off a ship. “That’s two officially,” Reid says of the minute plastic nurdles which littered the Southern African coastline from Mozambique to the Cape West Coast. Although officially cleaned up, a batch washed up at Salt Rock two weeks ago.

8. Most of what you think you are recycling actually ends up in landfill: “If your plastics are not clean, or the wrong lids are on, or you include polystyrene, which can’t be recycled, they don’t get recycled and end up in the regular garbage,” Reid says.