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Perils of plastic: Marine life, livelihoods at risk

Published:Wednesday | May 25, 2016 | 11:01 PMPetre Williams-Raynor
Earth Today Poster
Plastics present a significant challenge to marine life and livelihoods in Jamaica, as elsewhere in the Caribbean.

AS World Oceans Day approaches, the United Nations Environment Programme/Caribbean Environment Programme (UNEP/CEP) is looking to once again draw the public's attention to the threat of plastics - including microplastics present in many personal care products and cosmetics - to marine life and livelihoods.

"The matter of microplastic management is still very crucial considering that the health of our oceans are at stake in light of pollution and other risks, and given that we rely heavily on it for tourism and development as small island developing states," UNEP/CEP said in response to Gleaner queries.


"UNEP stands committed to working to reduce these risks to our ocean ecosystems and prevent consequences to the environment in general. The aim is to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development," it added.

Personal care and cosmetic products (PCCPs) microplastics are synthetic solid materials made from various types of polymers and chemicals, according to the 2015 UNEP study, Plastic in Cosmetics: Are we Polluting the Environment Through our Personal Care? Plastic Ingredients that Contribute to Marine Litter.

From shampoos and conditioners, shower gels, shaving cream, deodorant, and insect repellent to hairspray and colouring, eyeshadow, mascara, lipsticks, and even baby care products, plastic ingredients are applied in a variety of leave-on and rinse-off formulations.

Once washed down the drain after use, they are unavailable for recycling due to their small size.

"The plastic ingredients do not decompose in wastewater treatment systems, which can be lacking in large parts of the world. The ingredients are emitted via raw sewage, treated effluents or with sewage sludge applied as fertiliser (biosolids) on agricultural land, landfilled or dumped at sea," the study revealed.

It is against this background that UNEP last year recom-mended a "precautionary approach toward microplastic management, with an eventual phase-out and ban of their use in personal care products and cosmetics", according to a June 8, 2015 UNEP News Centre article.

Meanwhile, the pace at which microplastics are being produced in PCCPs is eye-opening. The 2015 study noted: "4,360 tonnes of microplastic beads were used in 2012 across all European Union countries, plus Norway and Switzerland, according to a survey by Cosmetics Europe, focusing on the use of microplastic beads, polyethylene beads representing 93 per cent of the total amount equalling 4037 tonnes".

And the threat to marine life and livelihoods is not limited to microplastics.

PET AND Styrofoam

also a challenge

Other plastics, including PET and Styrofoam, also end up in the sea via land-based sources of pollution such as "dumps/landfills, riverine transport, untreated sewage and storm water discharges, industrial and manufacturing facilities, tourism, and beachgoers".

A 2007 review of existing literature on marine litter from Latin America and the Wider Caribbean Region found, in fact, that between 1970 and 2007, plastics were the most common material reported.

Now the UNEP/CEP has recommended that people get behind the 'Better Bags Challenge' as one option for action this Oceans Day, in line with the 'Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet' theme for the June 8 celebrations.

"There are many great initiatives in which people can become involved and advance the theme of 'Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planets'. We are encouraging everyone to support the Better Bags Challenge, an initiative of the World Oceans Day to limit the use of disposable plastic bags for at least a year, and this will hopefully become a long-term effort," the UNEP/CEP said.

"There are far too many plastics polluting our oceans, which is known to pose a danger for our marine mammals and other species. It takes a collective effort to protect our precious resource so let us do all we can to ensure a sustainable ocean," it added.