Marine pollution high on the political agenda as the European Union prepares to host ‘Our Ocean conference’.

Plastic and pollution, two words that are synonymous these days. Plastic is the major contributor to marine pollution; a study published by PLOS One Journal in 2014, showing there were more than five trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. This number continues to rise as ten million tonnes of litter are discarded into the ocean each year. Marine pollution will be on the agenda for the annual ‘Our Ocean conference’ that the European Union (EU) hosted in Malta this month.

It is the first time that the EU will host the conference since its inception in 2014, highlighting Europe’s increasing commitment to conserving the marine environment. The conference will bring together world leaders and innovators to discuss a range of initiatives, aiming to increase the number of concrete actions made by countries around the world and add to the 8.2 billion Euros that have been committed to protecting the marine environment in previous years.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, collections of litter that gather in the North Pacific, is a key example of where marine pollution can be seen on a mass scale. Knowledge of this plastic pollution is not new, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch being discovered in the 1990s by oceanographer Charles Moore.

It has only been relatively recent that the prevalence of microplastics in both marine and urban environments has been brought to light. Microplastics, tiny pieces of deteriorated plastic debris, have been found in most parts of the food chain. Fish and oysters for example, have been contaminated with microplastics, along with drinking water, honey and beer.

Senior Specialist at Deltares Unit Marine and Coastal Systems and endowed professor at Vrije University in Amsterdam, Professor Dick Vethaak describes the prevalence of microplastic contamination as a “wicked problem.”

“We don’t even know yet to what degree humans are exposed to plastic particles but there are lots of routes of exposure. Not just by food or water but also by inhalation because it’s in the air too.” says Professor Vethaak.

Research is still being conducted as to the long-term effects microplastics will have on human health. A study published last month by Lund University in Sweden, has found nanoparticles of plastic in fish’s brains, causing them brain damage and behavioural disorders.

Professor Vethaak argues this discovery is quite significant, even from a human health context; “It tells you at least that research is urgently needed to see if similar effects occur in humans.”

Despite what seems to be an insurmountable task of ridding the world of plastic and microplastic pollution, there are some hopeful initiatives and commitments being made by world leaders. ‘Our Oceans conference’ which works alongside the EU’s Ocean Governance initiative, is aiming to reduce marine litter by thirty percent by 2020.

“To solve this problem of plastic litter… we need more recycling, we need education campaigns, we need more environmentally friendly plastics, we need in fact to redesign plastics… there is a long way to go,” says Professor Vethaak.

A live stream of the conference can be viewed here.

Picture: Chesapeake Bay Program,Flickr