Whether in the UK or overseas, I’ve always felt at home with the ocean. In 2005, I spent 49 punishing days at sea rowing across the Atlantic with Olympian James Cracknell. But it was swimming in South East Asia in 2016 that taught me most about the true state of our oceans in the age of plastic.
While filming a documentary about marine pollution last year, I dived into the Indian Ocean to explore what was lurking beneath the pristine surface. Seconds after entering the water, I was submerged in a soup of toxic plastic waste. Surrounded by litter, I narrowly avoided swallowing mouthfuls of toxic plastic debris. It soon became clear that few parts of the ocean remain untainted by the effects of mankind’s decades-long addiction to plastic packaging.
The problem is pretty dire in the Pacific Ocean, where marine litter has reached endemic levels. First discovered in the mid-eighties, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a toxic smog of plastic marine debris thought to cover an area as big as India. Here, plastic outweighs plankton by six to one.
Our oceans have reached breaking point. The never-ending stream of plastic detritus dumped in oceans each year is a curse on the plants and animals that call the ocean home. Plastic kills a million seabirds each year, many of whom endure death by choking on packaging. I’ve witnessed the grim autopsies of blue whales who are found to have stomachs clogged with throwaway packaging and plastic bottles.
While some of the worse plastic pollution I’ve seen has been in Asia, British waters are also scarred by marine litter. Go to any beach in Britain and grab a handful of sand. You will have picked up hundreds of micro pieces of plastic which will take hundreds of years to properly degrade. British beaches are also littered with cigarette butts, which consist of plastic fibres that take generations to fully decompose.
With the extent of the pollution crisis becoming more and more obvious, decisive remedial action is a must. Currently, shoppers who want to buy products that are not laden with excess plastic packaging have little to no choice. Glass bottles are in the midst of a steady decline as consumers are increasingly forced to choose the plastic version. Fruit and veg items protected by sturdy natural skins are encased in thick throwaway packaging for no good reason.
A plastic-free aisle in supermarkets would be a great way of giving consumers real choice over what they buy. Currently, shoppers can choose gluten-free and dairy-free, so why not plastic-free? With the world already saturated with plastic, we can no longer be complicit in the destruction of the marine environment. We can be the generation that confines plastic waste to the history books.
Ben Fogle is backing campaign group A Plastic Planet’s calls for a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets.