Liz Bonnin is a science and wildlife presenter. She has recently been awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the British Science Association and will be speaking at the Association’s Huxley Summit in London on 28 November 2018.


Plastic is everywhere. It’s reached every corner of our oceans and, it seems, every animal that makes the sea its home. On Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, flesh footed shearwaters inadvertently feed their chicks to death with plastic. In the Arctic, the entire marine food web has been infiltrated with microplastics – from microscopic plankton, fish and seals, to top predators like walruses and whales.

The implications for the health of these animals are grave, not least because of the toxic chemicals in plastic that impair reproduction and growth. But the full scope of the destructive power of plastic is still being unravelled. Scientists recently discovered that plastics also act as disease-carrying rafts, settling on fragile corals and delivering a toxic load of bacteria that can spread across them like gangrene. It paints a grim picture for the health of our oceans, and ultimately our own. 

Every minute one rubbish truck-load of plastic enters the ocean – that’s 8 million tonnes per year – and half of it comes from rivers that have been turned into plastic arteries coursing to the sea. The Citarum in Indonesia is one of the worst affected. Every day, 2000 tonnes of rubbish flows downstream.

The local government doesn’t provide facilities for waste collection, so villagers resort to makeshift dumps on the riverbank. And despite very public pledges, the global brands that make coveted products like shampoo and coffee affordable to those with little income, packaging them in millions of plastic sachets, are still not collecting or recycling them.

Indonesian companies are trying to take things into their own hands. One warehouse on Sulawesi collects bottles and sells them on to be turned into lower grade plastic for carpet backing, meaning the bottles are not recycled but downcycled, and that virgin plastic will still be used to make new ones. And the bottles keep coming, in ever-increasing volumes.

But this is not just South East Asia’s problem. The UK only recycles about 9% of its plastic. The rest is either incinerated or sent abroad to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. In fact, since China closed its doors to our plastic waste, exports to Malaysia have trebled, making it the main destination for British plastic. A recent report revealed that much of this plastic ends up in illegal dump sites.

Scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs are valiantly developing solutions to mitigate the crisis - collecting plastic before it enters the sea using huge water wheels, designing alternative materials like seaweed packaging and working to safeguard seagrass meadows that can protect coral reefs. 

The public’s response in places like the UK and Scandinavia has also been laudable, with beach cleans removing the plastic each tide brings in, and giving up plastic bags, straws and cups. But is this enough? And is the onus being placed (perhaps too conveniently) on the public?

Not all plastic is to be condemned – it’s vital in medical equipment and construction for example, but 40% of all plastic is single-use packaging, used once and thrown away. It seems to me we already have the solutions. The plastics industry must take responsibility for the indestructible material it manufactures by drastically reducing the amount of virgin plastics it produces and collecting and reusing all the plastic that cannot be replaced with alternative materials. Development of compostable materials that are correctly managed is also paramount. We need a global response and the legislation to support this plastic transformation.

And what can we as consumers do to enforce these changes? Perhaps the ocean plastic crisis is the call to arms we needed to finally come together as a global species and demand a paradigm shift in how we treat the planet – through individual action and by demanding change where it matters most.