University of Rhode Island researchers Andrew Davies and Coleen Suckling say that when a major hurricane churns up storm surges and heavy, drenching rains, the storm washes trash from the land into our rivers and coasts.
Among the items being transported are plastics, the ubiquitous consumer material that is found in many products and packaging. The problem is that plastic takes an exceptionally long time to break down in the natural environment. Some plastic trash ends up in harbors, estuaries and on land. But much of it continues to be circulated throughout the ocean and can settle onto the seafloor.
At the root of global climate change and the worldwide plastics pollution problem are two related carbon-based fuels — oil and natural gas. Not only are the two among the key drivers of climate change, they are instrumental in the manufacturing of plastics. As storms intensify and become more frequent, the movement of trash from land to our oceans, and vice versa, is only going to get worse.
Now URI colleagues Davies, associate professor of biological sciences, and Suckling, assistant professor of sustainable aquaculture, are part of an international team of researchers including those from the Zoological Society London and Bangor University in Wales examining an often overlooked phenomenon, the compounding effect of climate change and plastics.
The team identified three significant ways in which the climate crisis and plastics pollution are connected, with the first being how plastic contributes to global greenhouse gases from production through disposal. The second demonstrates how extreme weather, like hurricanes and floods, will disperse and worsen pollution. The third is the effect that climate change and plastics pollution can have on marine species and ecosystems that are vulnerable to both.
The study was led by Helen Ford, a Ph.D. student at Bangor University, who worked with Davies and Suckling when they were at Bangor. The team published its results in a September article in the journal, Science of the Total Environment. Professor Heather Koldewey, senior technical specialist at the Zoological Society London, was the lead author.
“Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most critical global threats of our time,” Koldewey said in a press announcement issued by the zoological society. “Plastic pollution is also having a global impact; from the top of Mount Everest to the deepest parts of the ocean. Both are having a detrimental effect on ocean biodiversity; with climate change heating ocean temperatures and bleaching coral reefs, to plastic damaging habitats and injuring or killing marine species. It’s not a case of which issue is most important, it’s recognizing that the two crises are interconnected and require joint solutions.”
Davies said Ford organized the international team that conducted the study. “The premise of the paper addresses the fact that so many people view plastics pollution and climate change as separate things when they are not,” Davies said. “They arise from the same principal material, oil.
“Climate change and plastic pollution have many similarities, including how we need to address them. We need international collaborations to address this problem, which essentially stems from the over-consumption of finite resources.”