Biodiversity, Plastics, and the Pandemic: How are they connected?


World Environment Day 2020: Celebrating Biodiversity

[If you need the TLDR version, head to the section below]

This World Environment Day is a unique one, we celebrate our love for the environment most likely from the confines of our home. Hence we thought we’d spend a bit more time to share with you our thoughts and three things to think about this World Environment Day.

The United Nations has themed this year's World Environment Day to be "Celebrate Biodiversity"- a concern that is both urgent and existential. Biodiversity refers to the variety of life found on Earth. If you remember your science classes in school, you’d know it refers to plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms.

Our oceans are teeming with life. Sometimes referred to as rainforests of the sea, coral reefs support an estimated 25% of all known marine species. Seagrass beds serve as habitats and/or food sources for more than 1,000 species of fish, as well as dugongs, sea turtles, and seahorses. 

Fun Fact! Seagrasses also help dissipate wind and wave energy and shelter the coast from storms. These meadows also function as carbon sinks, and hold up to 11% of the world’s total carbon storage, despite covering only 0.1% of the ocean floor. 

Why Biodiversity is Important and How It Maintains Stable Ecosystems 

Species rely on each other interdependently for food. With more species within the network, the less important interactions become. For example, it is more sustainable if an owl depends on ten types of species instead of two. 

If it were to only depend on two species for food, it will cause a significant decline in their population and in turn affect other interactions. Think of it as having various revenue streams so as to not have all of your eggs in one basket. Thus, the more biodiversity, the more stable the network. 

Even Predators Are Important

Sharks, as fearsome as they seem at first, are essential to our marine ecosystems. They are situated at the top of the food chain and are considered to be the immune system of our ocean. Sharks feed on potentially destructive fish populations. Their intervention prevents these populations from exploding and taking over a particular location. A world without sharks would result in our ocean being swamped with algae and other invasive species. 

Connecting the Dots Between Marine Biodiversity and Plastic Pollution

Marine biodiversity is threatened by plastic pollution in particular. Marine litter comprises mostly plastic at about 60-80%. The head of UN Environment's coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander said that "Marine plastic pollution is already affecting more than 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change." Whilst a big part of that problem comes from industrial fishing and ghost nets, however our use of plastic and disposal methods still have an impact. 

Here is How Consumer Plastic Pollution Affects Marine Biodiversity:

1. Animals consume them and the toxins in It - including us 

Plastics are manufactured from crude oil, and when mechanically scratched or heated, they release toxins through a process known as chemical leaching. The toxins include polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), which is banned by the US because of its neurotic effects.

When ingested by animals and marine creatures, the toxins move up the food chain through a process known as bioaccumulation. It occurs because the absorption of the toxins happen at a quicker rate than natural excretion processes. As such, when creatures feed on each other, they end up ingesting the toxins that remain in the carcass. Eventually, these toxins end up on our plates. 

2. Plastic kills. It destroys coral reefs along with the lifeforms that depend on it

Studies have shown that the presence of plastic in coral reefs increases the microbial colonisation by pathogens which cause coral disease. The likelihood of disease outbreak increases from 4% to 89%. 

Joleah Lamb of Cornell University told the Guardian that “Corals are just like animals like you and me - they get wounded and then infected. So when plastics abrade corals, it’s like cutting yourself with a really dirty knife.”

Plastic also blocks sunlight and oxygen from reaching the corals - both of which are imperative to its survival.

Plastics and the Pandemic

But despite these challenges, we must acknowledge that plastic does play an important role in our societies as a form of protection against the virus. With many citizens responsibly choosing to remain home in view of the pandemic, more waste and plastic is generated as people opt for delivery alternatives for groceries and meals. 

A study by MEM Cares*, conducted a research survey with a goal to understand the takeaway and delivery behaviour of Singapore residents during the circuit breaker period. 

MEM Cares Key Survey Findings 

1. Over the circuit breaker period, we produced plastic waste the weight of 27 blue whales.

The circuit breaker (CB) period has skyrocketed takeaway and delivery food, generating an additional amount of plastic waste equivalent to the weight of 27 blue whales of 1334 tonnes.  

With citizens staying home, takeaway meals have increased by 18% per week per 100 households and delivery meals spiked 73%. 

2. Many are supportive of environmentally friendly options, but only a third are willing to foot the bill. 

Survey respondents claim that they choose disposables for their convenience, while 19% expressed their concern that there was no option to refuse. Up to 97% are supportive of environmentally friendly takeaway options, but only 31% are willing to cover additional costs. 

3. Takeaway meals increased by 18% per week per 100 households and delivery meals spiked by 73% during the circuit breaker.

Despite these challenges, let’s be mindful of how each of us can play a part. Here are three simple steps to make a difference #littlegreensteps

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Simple Steps You Could Take to Play Your Part 

1. Refuse disposable cutlery

When ordering food for takeaway, choose to refuse disposable cutlery when you can. If you are ordering online, GrabFood and Foodpanda have these options available. You can take the next step by ordering with barepack.co or muuse.io where they offer returnable reusable containers for takeaway food items.



 

2. Group-buy when you shop online

When shopping online, try to group-buy to save on delivery costs and reduce packaging waste/carbon footprint. And please remember to only buy if you need one! 

 

 

3. Support businesses that fund the cause if you can

Support businesses that fund ocean plastic-cleanups and marine conservation if you can afford it. Continue to patronise local businesses in F&B with your BYO!

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Already doing these things? Amazing! Check out some of the programs Seastainable is supporting,  that need funding to keep their operations running!

*In response to the circuit breaker in Singapore, a group of NUS alumni from the Master of Science in Environmental Management (MEM) program decided to establish MEM Cares: a new initiative that hopes to encourage sustainable practices while safeguarding health during COVID-19 pandemic. 

 


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