It is common knowledge that the world has a pollution problem and more specifically pollution in our oceans. It seems that every day there are more and more posts in the news and on social media about how trash is accumulating in our oceans and how that is affecting climate change, sea life, and marine habitats. Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard about the Great Pacific garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean and the decline of our coral reefs. Ocean pollution has many devastating effects such as the decline of marine species, hormone changes and reproductive failure of marine animals, changes in water acidity, contamination of the food chain, and possible negative effects on human health.
The majority of trash in oceans is plastics and single-use items such as plastic bags, cigarette butts, straws, drink stirrers and bottles. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that the oceans will contain more plastics than fish. This is a problem in that many marine animals mistake plastics for food and die because they are unable to digest the plastic. Just last summer a pilot whale washed up in southern Thailand having ingested 80 plastic bags. While plastics in the ocean have a direct effect on marine life, plastics are also becoming a problem for people. Since plastics are so highly concentrated in fish in the form of microplastics and other marine species, they can make their way up the food chain and be present in the seafood that we eat. Other less publicized forms of ocean pollution come from oil spills, factory run-off, agricultural run-off, water treatment sewage, and burning fossil fuels that create a toxic environment for marine life. For example chemicals released into the ocean can cause an increase of pH in a process called ocean acidification. More acidic oceans lead to coral bleaching and higher mortality of mussel species.
Although Finland does not seem to have the same problems with waste disposal as the rest of the world, issues with pollution in the Baltic Sea do exist. An estimated 80% of trash gets in oceans by means of land based sources. This is important in Finland and especially in the northern Bothnian Bay in which large rivers run into the sea and carry trash with it. This past summer, the SEAmBOTH team saw first-hand how normal, everyday items made their way to the sea. We gathered the usual bottles, aluminum cans, milk cartons, plastic bags, juice boxes and various plastic containers, but more surprising, we found tires, entire bicycles and street signs.
Other items found in the water. Photos by Suvi Saarnio, Metsähallitus.
More disappointing was one event that took place last May in Oulu. The whole event was to promote and teach students sustainable development goals. However, various organizations at the event were giving out plastic balloons attached to plastic sticks. As soon as students left the event, many balloons flew away and into the water. The SEAmBOTH table was set up right in front of the water and Suvi Saarnio (Metsähallitus) spent much of the time in the water removing the balloons. Yes, children like balloons, but this was not an appropriate souvenir for this type of event, and we should try harder to teach the next generation better.
As a whole, Finland is one of the top countries for recycling and waste management, but a major problem is the availability of single-use plastics. However, there are on-going efforts to fix this problem. Some companies in Finland have begun to reduce or completely eliminate single-use items. For example, the restaurant chain, Hesburger, stopped using plastic straws and hotel chains such as Scandic and Radison Blu are no longer using plastic straws or stirring sticks. Hopefully, more companies will follow this example. Furthermore, the Blastic Project is monitoring sea pollution in the Baltic Sea and working with organizations to do clean up in Finland, Sweden, Latvia, and Estonia.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that all trash in the sea will just disappear. However, if every person does their part, no matter how small, maybe we can make a difference. ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is a common phrase we are always taught, but maybe just being more aware and observant of how trash has an impact after we dispose of it is just as important.
Written by Ashley Gipson, Metsähallitus