Summary and Conclusions
Awareness of the threats posed by waste plastics to marine ecosystems developed gradually through the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the environmental impacts of plastic litter were identifi in the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in numerous policy discussions and recommendations to decrease the amount of waste plastic entering the environment (Chen 2015). Tightened controls by plastic manufacturers and converters reduced losses of industrial pellets and legislation such as MARPOL Annex V reduced disposal of plastic wastes at sea (although compliance remains problematic in at least some sectors). However, it also became apparent that most litter entering the sea did so from diffuse, land-based sources that are more diffi to control. The rapid increase in global plastic production has resulted in an increase in the amount of plastic items and fragments in marine systems, which in many cases has offset the gains made by reducing losses of industrial pellets and dumping of ship-generated wastes. Plastic is becoming so abundant in some marine systems that it is actually altering the physical properties of the environment (e.g. Carson et al. 2011).
There was a lull in research activity in the 1990s, but the confirmation that microplastics were a ubiquitous marine pollutant in the early 2000s, coupled with publicity around the formation of mid-ocean garbage patches, has stimulated renewed research interest and increased public awareness of the marine litter problem. One of the most urgent current challenges is the need to develop techniques to trace the smallest plastic particles through marine ecosystems, including uptake and release from marine organisms. We also need an improved understanding of the dynamics of waste plastics if we are to monitor the efficacy of mitigation measures (Ryan et al. 2009). Just as we can't interpret the significance of plastic loads in organisms without assessing their turnover rates (Ryan 1988a), we need estimates of transport rates between environments and their biota, and of plastic degradation rates under different environmental conditions. However, we already know enough to say with certainty that the release of waste plastics into the environment is already impacting adversely on marine systems, and affecting human quality of life. Given that plastic litter is, at least theoretically, a wholly avoidable problem, increased effort is needed to stop the inappropriate disposal of waste plastics through a combination of education, product design, incentives, legislation and enforcement.
Acknowledgments I thank my many colleagues, and especially Coleen Moloney, for sharing my plastic-related adventures over the last 30 years. Bill Naude from the Plastics Federation of South Africa supported our research. The South African National Antarctic Programme and Tristan's Conservation Department provided logistical support as well as permission to visit some of the world's most spectacular islands.