Our oceans are in trouble. As if the rise in ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and the overexploitation of fish stocks wasn’t enough of a crisis, the staggering levels of marine pollution is cause for very real concern and requires concerted efforts from every person on this planet. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year and every square kilometre of ocean holds an average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter according to the Plastics Oceans Foundation and the United Nations. Plastics account for a sizeable portion of marine waste, and that has to change.
Plastics have both a direct and indirect effect on the planet. Plastics directly entering the oceans account for a massive percentage of marine pollution, and plastics also play a role in climate change, warming the world’s oceans. Fabien Cousteau, grandson of world famous ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is an ocean advocate and filmmaker. In the summer of 2014, the younger Cousteau lived under the ocean for 31 days to conduct science experiences and give the world a “better grasp on what oceans mean to climate change, and a better understanding of what the over-consumption of natural resources means to us as a species.” Dubbed Mission 31, the scientists on board researched a broad range of issues affecting our oceans, from the effects of man-made pollutants like fertilisers to how zooplankton respond to prolonged changes in water temperature.
This research is just beginning to increase our understanding of the devastating effect plastics have had on the planet’s oceans.
The Role of Travel & Tourism in Plastics Consumption
Travel & Tourism and the world’s oceans are inextricably intertwined. As much as 80% of tourism relates to the coastal areas, and the state of the world’s oceans can no longer handle the amount of plastics pollution entering the water each day. T&T brings tourists to vulnerable regions of the world — islands, reefs, and small communities — and in many cases pushes local waste management systems beyond maximum capacity. A paper in Science magazine showed the powerful link between waste management systems around the world and the state of our oceans.
“Population size and the quality of waste management systems largely determine which countries contribute the greatest mass of uncaptured waste available to become plastic marine debris. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.”
When tourism is concentrated in areas without effective waste management systems, trash and plastics invariably end up contaminating forests, rivers, and oceans. Litterbase visually maps where marine litter concentrates, and the magnitude of the issue is staggering. According to the United States Institute of Peace, “Once essentially excluded from the tourism industry, the developing world has now become its major growth area. Tourism is a key foreign exchange earner for 83 percent of developing countries,” and according to study from the University of Maryland “more than 50 million people from industrialised nations travel to developing countries each year.”
The rise in tourism to developing regions of the world has many positive effects on local economies and employment, but it creates issues when these countries are not equipped to handle the side-effects of tourism, which include increased stress on waste removal systems. While destinations and T&T companies must act to counter the effects of tourism on the world’s oceans, travellers must also understand the stress tourism places on local and global ecosystems, and take actions to mitigate the negative effects.
How You Can Minimise Plastic Usage
Minimising our use of plastics means looking for all the ways plastics have infiltrated our daily lives. From shopping bags to food packaging to bottled drinks, there are opportunities in many areas of your life and travels to limit your use of disposable plastics. Although there are exciting innovations underway aimed at undoing some of the damage from plastics in the environment, travellers still play a very important role in limiting the amount of plastic consumption in T&T. Here are four ways to lower your impact on the countries and communities you visit on your travels.
Bring your own water bottle.
Buy a portable water bottle and then invest in travel-sized water purification systems. Options include: decontamination tablets, sterilizing through UV light (like the SteriPEN), and filtering straws (like the LifeStraw). Research the differences in water purification options and select the one that fits your travel style. Buying and disposing of bottled drinks accounts for a huge portion of plastic consumption when travelling. Disrupting this habit makes a powerful statement about your commitment to minimising your use of plastics.
Carry your own collapsible tote.
Just as grocery stores are pushing for shoppers towards reusable bags, you can carry a tiny tote in your purse and use it when buying souvenirs. Many of these totes fold into themselves, making it compact way to eliminate the need for destructive plastic shopping bags — which you likely don’t need anyway once you’re back at the hotel packing your suitcase!
Refuse small shampoo bottles from hotels.
Invest in quality reusable toiletry containers and refuse the single-use shampoo and soaps provided by the hotel. Since it’s difficult to avoid using plastics altogether, it’s important to assess the amount of plastic per use. Using your own containers is an effective way to ensure you’re limiting the amount of plastics you consume on vacation.
Recycle when possible.
Look for opportunities to throw recyclables in designated bins, or ask if your hotel has a recycling programme. Often, even if the city or town does not offer recycling programmes, your guesthouse or hotel collects and recycles plastics. If that’s the case, toss plastics in your bag throughout the day and recycle once back at your accommodations.
We are all charged with protecting the planet from the devastating effects of plastics. Cousteau summed it well: “No matter how remote we feel we are from the oceans, every act each one of us takes in our everyday lives affects our planet’s water cycle and in return affects us.” Consider the magnitude of the plastics problem, and take steps to reduce your plastics consumption.