Plastics a threat to marine life

Dr Tony Butt has a PhD in physical oceanography from the University of Plymouth, and worked part time as a research fellow with the Coastal Processes Research Group. He spoke to Capetonians at The Hive in Muizenberg.

Saving our seas is going to take more than beach clean-ups – we need to get companies to stop fuelling the plastics plague killing them, says oceanographer and surfer Dr Tony Butt.

He spoke at The Hive in Muizenberg on Friday July 13 about the harm plastics are doing to our environment… and us.

We need to get single-use plastics, such as straws, plastic bags and water bottles, and micro-plastics, which are entering the food chain at an alarming rate, out of our lives if we have any hope of getting them out of oceans, he says.

We also need to encourage scientists to find ways to break down the plastic monster we’ve already created.

Dr Butt, who lives six months of the year in Kommetjie and the rest of the year in Spain, painted a vivid picture of a planet drowning in plastic.

“Plastic was invented in the 1950s. By 1989 there was already 50 million tons of it made in that year alone. Every year the rate of plastic production increases by 9%.

“In 1985, there was 500 million tons of it. In 2014, the figure was a staggering 5000 million tons,” Dr Butt said.

He was quoting figures produced by his colleague, Professor Richard Thompson, of the University of Plymouth, who has received an OBE for services rendered to marine science.

An unidentified audience member said he had done the math based on those figures and found we were generating the weight of the combined human race, in plastic, every year.

The picture is not pretty for our grandchildren, said Dr Butt.

He estimated that by 2050 there could be 70 000 million tons of plastic, and by the time that generation had grandchildren, if no changes had been made, there could be a million tons of plastic: to get rid of.

It’s time, Dr Butt said, for the rest of the world to follow the example of places like Rwanda, to ban plastic.

The False Bay Echo looked into the toxicity concerns about plastic, which are hotly contested by the plastics manufacturers, and found these goes way back.

In 1969 John Hopkins University toxicologists Robert Rubin and Rudolph Jaeger found that DEHP was leaching from plastic and into human tissue. DEHP is a phthalate ester: phthalate esters, are esters of phthalic acid. They are mainly used as plasticizers, in other words they are substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. They are used primarily to soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

In 1972 there was an article in the Washington Post which reported that phthalates like DEHP had been found in blood samples from people who had been exposed only through everyday contact with plastic. The article noted – in 1972 – that “humans are just a little plastic now.”

The 16th century founding father of toxicology, Paracelsus, said that the poison is in the dose, meaning that virtually any chemical can be poisonous if too much is consumed.

And Theo Colburn, a toxicology researcher, has pointed out that timing may be more crucial a factor, as he says phthalates and other plastic additives can disrupt human endocrine or hormonal systems and that even small doses of exposure for babies and children can have an outsized effect on development.

This information is from the Science History Institute and can be read in detail at under the heading “Conflicts in Chemistry: The case of plastics”. also mentions a health scare with regards the effects of bisphenol A (BPA) on rodents in lab tests which showed that BPA can trigger a host of harmful changes, from reproductive havoc to impaired blood-sugar control and obesity.

The ScienceNews article, How Plastic We Have Become, said that a federal government study now reports that BPA laces the bodies of the vast majority of American residents, young and old.

On the website Plastic Soup Foundation, it is stated that in 2016 Canada became the first country in the world to add plastic microbeads to its list of toxic substances.

The website also revealed that in July 2016 scientists demonstrated for the first time that microplastics can lead to toxic chemicals being absorbed into the bodies of fish and three Japanese universities were said to have linked chemicals in the tissue of sea birds to plastics in their stomachs.

During his presentation, Mr Butt showed a picture of a dead albatross with the contents of its stomach revealed: plastics, human rubbish and a razor blade. These birds starve to death because they mistake plastic for food.

The audience offered various suggestions on how to reduce plastic use, including washing clothes less frequently to stop microfibres ending up in the sea; removing household bins for a week or two to create awareness about what we throw away; buying cotton-only clothes; wrapping fridge contents in cloth instead of storing them in plastic containers; and remembering to pack cloth shopping bags.

Muizenberg environmentalist Kevin Rack was at the talk with a bucket of nurdles and micro-plastics collected along the banks of Zandvlei estuary.

He was due to talk to the 1st Muizenberg Sea Scouts the following day.

Dr Butt encouraged everyone to do their own research and become better educated about the effects of plastic on their health and the environment and to put pressure on the government and companies to do more to protect the planet.

Dr Butt has published 16 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals and over 200 other articles on waves and the coastal environment in non-scientific magazines. He is the author of Surf Science: An Introduction to Waves for Surfing (2004, 2014) and The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates (2009), in addition to numerous chapters, forewords and other contributions.