As a marine conservationist, I am often asked by people what they can do to help the marine environment. Many of the initiatives I have worked on are mainly awareness-based and there is little anyone can do apart from support with their time, products, or funds, but the beauty of the marine debris campaign is that every single individual can get involved if they choose to, and they can get involved today.
In February this year, Azraq joined forces with Freedom Pizza to launch the #stopsucking initiative, creating a movement to eradicate plastic straws from food outlets in the United Arab Emirates. Thanks to this social-media campaign, organizations like Jumeirah Restaurant Group, Gates Hospitality, and Pitfire Pizza have joined the movement. However, it’s worth noting that an individual can have just as much impact. In fact, just one customer speaking to the manager of Urth in Jumeirah Lakes Towers about why she felt strongly about the movement was enough for them to get on board.
Plastic straws are sadly one of the top ten items that we find during coastal clean-ups, and it is estimated that these take approximately 200 years to break down in nature. While we have not been able to gather statistics on usage in the United Arab Emirates, it is estimated that over 500 million plastic straws are used each day just in the United States alone (1) and that Britain uses around 8.5 billion of them a year (2).
Straws are difficult to recycle because they are so light and small that they drop out of sorting machines and mix with other materials. This means that, like plastic bags, straws mainly end up in landfills or in our waterways for hundreds of years, leaching toxins into water supplies and blocking local drainage systems. Burning them is not a good option either, as they emit toxic gases into the atmosphere.
That being said, straws aren’t the item most commonly found in coastal clean-ups. Approximately thirty to forty per cent of marine debris cleared from the coastline is made up of cigarette butts. Most people don’t realize that cigarette filters are made from a type of plastic called cellulose acetate, which doesn’t biodegrade.
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic beverage bottles
- Plastic bottle caps
- Food wrappers
- Plastic grocery bags
- Plastic lids
- Glass bottles
- Plastic bags (general)
- Take-away containers
All of these items are generally used once and then thrown away. In fact, it is estimated that single-use plastics make up fifty to eight-nine percent of debris in the oceans (3).
Unless people care about the problems associated with plastic use, they are unable to make the connection to the next step in the process, which is to take a different approach. Changing mindsets can be difficult, but giving people the information they need to find the reasons to care about the issue can actually result in positive action.
From the fatal risks posed to marine wildlife and human health due to food-chain contamination to the negative impact on businesses and tourism as a result of polluted beaches and coastlines, this is a problem that concerns each and every one of us.
Here are easy steps people can take today to reduce their environmental impact.
Look for alternatives to single-use plastic bottles such as using a reusable water bottle or drinking filtered water from your tap at home.
Goumbook, a UAE-based social enterprise, offers guidance and referrals for people interested in installing a water filter in their home or office.
Bring a refillable cup to your usual coffee shop instead of using a takeaway cup.
Have you heard of KeepCups?
Change from plastic cotton buds to cardboard or wooden cotton buds.
These can be found in many places around the UAE, including Miniso, or on Souq.com.
Look for alternatives to plastic bags such as canvas bags, jute bags, personal shopping trolleys, or denim bags.
You’ll find a selection of eco-friendly bags here.
Volunteer for beach clean-up activities.
Azraq hosts regular clean-ups, which will resume after summer.
Avoid personal-care products containing microbeads.
Here’s a super detailed list of products containing microbeads.
When buying clothes or bedding, choose natural over synthetic fibers when possible, particularly for things that will be washed frequently.
“New studies indicate that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale.” Click here to find out more.
Don't release balloons into the air.
What goes up must come down and, with the oceans making up 70 percent of the planet, balloons usually end up directly in the sea.
Properly dispose of fishing lines, nets, and hooks.
Each year, more than 705,000 tons of fishing lines and nets build up in the ocean.
Keep cigarette butts off streets and beaches.
Or, better yet, quit smoking!
Want to do more? This article details 100 ways to reduce plastic in your life.
Natalie Banks is a scuba-diving instructor and the Managing Director of the UAE marine conservation group Azraq. She is a spokesperson, writer, researcher, and adviser with eleven years of experience in ocean conservation who has successfully campaigned for shark conservation policy changes throughout Australia.