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The poison in our oceans

08.10.2018 - Article

Plastic waste is a threat to our oceans' ecosystems as animals mistake waste for food and die in cruel circumstances. Dr Ralph Kadel, member of the management board of Blue Action Fund, sets out possible solutions, writes German Development Bank KfW.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic can be found in 90 percent of sea birds.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic can be found in 90 percent of sea birds.© KfW

Every year, around 311 million tonnes of plastic are produced around the world. For a long time now, a large portion of this plastic has made its way into our planet's oceans, with some devastating ecological and economic effects. A "garbage patch" the size of central Europe is currently floating in the Pacific Ocean. An estimated 100 million tonnes of solid waste can currently be found in our oceans, with a further 6.5 million tonnes added every year. Up to 75 percent of this waste is made of plastic. However, this garbage patch tends to be invisible to humans as it is mainly made up of tiny particles that float beneath the surface of the water.

Over 80 percent of marine litter makes its way from the land into the ocean via rivers and sewers. The biggest problems are caused by packaging, plastic bottles and plastic bags, which can take over 400 years to biodegrade. Plastic fragments have been found in almost 700 different species of marine life ranging from zooplankton to cetaceans (a group including whales and dolphins). Animals mistake waste for food. This is particularly dangerous for sea turtles; once they have swallowed plastic, their stomachs are unable to ingest any food, causing the animals to die of starvation.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic can be found in 90 percent of sea birds. In 1960, this figure was just five percent. Fishing lines and the estimated 10,000 nets that are lost by fishermen each year pose a particularly deadly threat. Animals are often trapped inside them and strangled. Each year, one million sea birds die as a result of the accumulation of marine waste. In the Bering Sea alone, around 40,000 seals die each year due to plastic.

The UN's Environment Programme estimates that we will have to spend around 13 billion Euro per year to fight the effects of marine littering.
UNEP estimates that we will have to spend around 13 billion Euro per year to fight the effects of marine littering.© KfW

Coral reefs, which are vital for marine life, are also affected. Solid waste that sinks to the ocean floor upsets the balance and can cause the coral to die. This trend has devastating consequences as the reefs act as a place of refuge and breeding grounds for many types of fish. We should all be aware that global marine litter has far-reaching consequences for ecosystems, biodiversity, the economy, food supply and human health. Because marine litter has spread across the entire globe, cleaning it up is impossible. This is also affected by the fact that 90 percent of the oceans' waste is less than one centimetre in size and is mainly found at greater depths or on the ocean floor. As a result, we would be unable to clean our oceans without disturbing (or even destroying) the marine ecosystem at the same time.

As well as severe damage to the environment, the financial consequences of this development are also immense. The UN's Environment Programme estimates that we will have to spend around 13 billion Euro per year to fight the effects of marine littering.

The types of damage vary greatly: Cooling water and filtering systems in thermal power plants and desalination plants require extensive cleaning. Contamination of coastlines and beaches also has a negative impact on tourism. Contaminated catches, in particular, are resulting in losses for the fishing industry. In developing countries and emerging economies, fishermen suffer from the effects, as contamination goes hand-in-hand with a sharp loss in income.

The former German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks (from the Social Democratic Party) has called marine littering one of the greatest environmental problems of our age. At the G7 summit back in June 2015, participants signed up to the Action Plan to Combat Marine Litter.

On the island of Sal in Cape Verde, kite surfer Mitu Monterio found a sea turtle that was no longer strong enough to free itself from a plastic net.
On the island of Sal in Cape Verde, kite surfer Mitu Monterio found a sea turtle that was no longer strong enough to free itself from a plastic net.© KfW

The types of damage vary greatly: Cooling water and filtering systems in thermal power plants and desalination plants require extensive cleaning. Contamination of coastlines and beaches also has a negative impact on tourism. Contaminated catches, in particular, are resulting in losses for the fishing industry. In developing countries and emerging economies, fishermen suffer from the effects, as contamination goes hand-in-hand with a sharp loss in income.

A ten-point marine conservation plan drawn by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ) and presented by Minister Gerd Müller (from the Christian Social Union party) in May 2016 includes the key task of preventing marine litter in the German development cooperation's partner countries. The plan sets out a range of measures, from protecting fish to creating a warning system for climate change. In its bid to combat littering, the BMZ is relying especially on partnerships with the economy so that less waste can be produced in general and as little of this waste as possible can end up in the ocean.

A key element of this ten-point plan is the establishment of a special marine foundation, the Blue Action Fund. KfW provided 24 million Euro of start-up capital to the newly founded trust on behalf of the BMZ. The non-profit trust is based in Frankfurt. It supports the marine conservation efforts of non-governmental organisations and, among other things, encourages the identification of new conservation areas as well as sustainable fishing and environmentally friendly tourism in the process. Around 12 projects amounting to at least 19 million Euro are due to be launched by 2019.

Its involvement with the Blue Action Fund complements KfW's profile. Protecting our coastlines and oceans is already a priority of its work. One example of its intensive partnerships is its work with Tunisia. On behalf of the German Government, KfW has been helping the Mediterranean country to develop environmentally sound waste management for the past 15 years. The activities are based on an important principle: To guarantee long-term protection of our coastlines and seas, political, economic and private bodies need to come together.

© KfW

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