Just as we have been thinking lately about our own lungs in the shadow of Covid-19, World Oceans Day celebrates the lungs of the entire planet, which are being assaulted by the fallout from climate change, chemicals from agriculture and plastic waste.
The planet’s lungs are of course linked to the health of our own. But, in a bid to protect human lungs, plastic production and use has soared in the past few months, an unwelcome trend that is adding to the threat to our oceans being flagged up by environmentally aware activists everywhere, including students at King’s College Alicante.
While the Amazon rainforests soak up around 5% of the world’s annual emissions, our oceans keep a lid on around 50% of carbon dioxide – the biggest cause of global warming – as well as providing up to 85% of the Earth’s oxygen via tiny ocean plants, mainly phytoplankton, which does the job of trees in the forest.
However, the word is that the amount of oxygen produced by our oceans has fallen by 2% over the last 50 years according to the oceanography group Geomar while micro plastics consumed by plankton are thought by marine scientists from the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway in Ireland to be impairing its ability to take C02 to the sea floor where it can be stored.
Once hailed as the answer to a dream, plastic has stitched itself into almost every aspect of our lives, turning everyone, even those on modest incomes, into mass consumers. The durability it was once praised for is now recognised as a curse – the material equivalent of a zombie that refuses to ‘die’ and which is itself a killer.
According to a study from Plymouth University, plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species with an estimated 100 million marine mammals, including sea turtles, dolphins and whales, killed each year on account of it. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, fish and birds have already been found dead with plastic gloves in their stomachs.
To combat the devastation, the mantra adopted at King’s College Alicante is Refuse, Review, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – the five Rs – reminding us to take individual responsibility for what amounts to 70 per cent of our world.
Though we may persuade ourselves that what we do on an individual basis will be no more than ‘a drop in the ocean,’ it all adds up, or, as they say in Scotland, “Many a mickle makes a muckle”.
Currently, 40% of our oceans are covered by a carpet of plastic waste, not to mention the tiny plastic particles swirling below the surface. Not one square mile of ocean surface anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution and, according to experts, plastic will outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050 if we continue to pollute at current rates.
Fifty years back, the amount of plastic being produced in the world amounted to two million tons. It now stands at 330 million tons – a figure set to triple by 2050 – 12 million tons of which ends up in our oceans annually.
Prior to March 2020, there was a degree of hope that the rate could be curtailed with a growing anti-plastic culture that was being regulated from the top, at least in Europe.
In March 2019, the European Parliament voted to ban a dozen single-use plastics from straws to stirrers by 2021 while some supermarkets had started to bow to public pressure, ditching a degree of the demon packaging.
Then the coronavirus struck and, as one executive in the plastic industry observed, “We have turned from being demon to saviour.”
Plastic gloves, bags, masks, wipes, visors and cling film to protect fresh food in supermarkets are considered life savers and companies manufacturing plastic are speaking about multiplying output by five.
Tourism promises to maintain, if not boost, this demand, with disposable cutlery, tablecloths and cups providing holidaymakers with the reassurance they may need to eat out.
Now, more than ever, we need to be keeping the five Rs at the forefront of our minds.
To help students spread the word, King’s College Alicante has managed to turn what was originally to be a week focusing on caring for our oceans into a “Fridays” virtual campaign.
“From the upper floors of KCA, our children can see the Mediterranean,” says Head of Primary, Marie Lally, who explains that the school has been working in partnership with the Ocean Race Project and Ambiente Europeo to raise funds and awareness. “This proximity to the sea and the beach has made our children passionate about protecting our oceans and our environment more generally.”
The Fridays themed days were launched on May 22. According to Sharmila Gandhi, Assistant Head of King’s College Alicante Lower School, four specialist art teachers led virtual master classes on famous artists and art techniques which children could use to then create their art masterpieces. “The day allowed the children to really think about our oceans while they were painting ocean related pictures,” she says.
Some of the children’s artwork will be exhibited in a virtual art gallery on June 12th while on May 29, Oceans Geography day focused on how our oceans can be cared for.
“Children get a chance then to create their oceans games, deep sea vessels and make their own mini videos promoting ideas on how to keep our oceans safe and healthy,” says Sharmila.
There is even an Oceans Science day on June 5 when the subject of building homes that can withstand flooding – an increasingly common occurrence due to climate change and global warming – will be broached. “Children were introduced to STEM style open-ended tasks to design and build flood-proof houses and carry out their own scientific experiments linked to ice melting, rising sea levels and more!” says Marie Lally.
On World Oceans Day itself, which falls on June 8 and was rubberstamped by the United Nations in 2008, Marie cooked up a special Eco Challenge. “The children had to come up with any invention or idea which could help save our planet; the more original, the better! The quality of submissions has been excellent,” she says.
As summer looms with beach holidays on the agenda, there will be a chance for all of us, not only those on the upper floors of King’s College Alicante, to gaze out to sea and consider the benefits of preventative medicine when it comes to this particular set of lungs.