Cape Town - Six million tons of debris – weighing about the same as a million elephants – enter the world’s oceans every year and for just one plastic bottle to break up at sea, it takes around 450 years.
These were some of the alarming figures given by Rejoice Mabudafhasi, Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, who was speaking at the Second African Summit on Marine Debris at Kirstenbosch.
The summit started on Wednesday and ends on Friday.
Thousands of animals – such as sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals – are also affected by marine pollution by getting entangled in or consuming fishing line, nets, ropes and other abandoned equipment.
The marine debris – which includes plastic, fishing gear, medical waste and cigarette filters – can be transferred from one country to another via ocean currents. Recent reports suggest that four years after a tsunami hit Japan’s coast, debris still washes up in Washington State, carrying potential invasive species and parasites with it.
Professor Peter Ryan, of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, who has researched the impacts of ingested plastic on seabirds for many years, said marine pollution needed a radical rethink as it was getting worse.
More plastic was being consumed and “it was not getting to the right place”.
Ryan said that during a recent clean-up in the rocky intertidal area along the False Bay coast at spring low tide, 380 sea anemones had been found eating plastic.
Research had included looking at the impact of beach users and litter.
Muizenberg was sampled for 50 days from late November through to mid-January when thousands of people descended on the beach for the summer holidays.
But Ryan said that surprisingly, they found no correlation.
When studying the litter, the research team had found that it had been in the system for a while.
“It suggests that there is a big pool of plastic floating around in the bottom of False Bay and it lands up on the beach under certain conditions,” he said.
John Kieser, convener and sustainability manager at Plastics SA, said the summit aimed to establish a Southern African network that would increase research and awareness around the topic of marine debris, as well as launch new actions to dramatically reduce the amount of pollution found in the oceans.
“As African economies grow, unfortunately the ills associated with such an expansion are also increasingly reported,” he said.
The summit, hosted by Plastics SA, was supported by the United Nations Environment Programme and the South African National Biodiversity Institute.