In just 10 years, the amount of plastic in the ocean will triple unless we make drastic changes, according to a major new report published by the UK government.

The Foresight Future of the Sea Report, published on Wednesday, warned that to find a solution we must address our “sea blindness” — our widespread lack of understanding of the sea and its value. 

Scientists described it as the “out of sight, out of mind challenge.”

Take action: Fight Waste to Protect Our Oceans

“This is best demonstrated by the fact that the seabed is less mapped than the surface of Mars,” says the report.

“The consequence of this is an increased risk of policy makers, industry, and the public underestimating the opportunities from the sea, and the implications of damaging its environment,” it said. 

Prof. Edward Hill, a co-author of the report, told the BBC that “we really need a mission to planet ocean” which he described as the “last frontier.” 

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“The ocean is critical to our economic future,” said Hill, from the UK National Oceanography Centre. “Nine billion people will be looking to the ocean for more food. Yet we know so little of what’s down there.” 

“We invest a lot of money and enthusiasm for missions to space — but there’s nothing living out there,” he said. “The sea bed is teeming with life.”

One of the key issues addressed in the report is the environment. It points out a number of long-term trends that must be addressed, including: 

  • Growing threats to marine biodiversity, linked to human activities including over-exploitation and climate change. 
  • Sea level rise and a following increase in coastal flooding. 
  • Rising temperatures — increases of 1.2-3.2C are projected by 2100, depending on emissions.
  • Ocean plastic — predicted to treble between 2015 and 2025.
  • Chemical pollution, with pollutants able to persist in the oceans for decades after their use is restricted by legislation.

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One central concern is that, while research is being done, we don’t yet know the real damage that ocean plastic is doing.

“Plastic does not decompose, instead breaking down into ever smaller pieces,” says the report. “The full effects are not understood, but there is growing evidence of plastic harming sea creatures and restricting their movement, as well as polluting beaches.” 

Prof. Ian Boyd, chief scientific advisor for the Environment Department said that “even in the absence of research, there is a precautionary principle to take here.”

“We should minimise the amount of plastic, both macro-plastic and micro-plastic, going into the marine environment in order to make sure that if there are toxic effects, those are being dealt with,” he said.

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The report recommended that efforts to stop plastic entering the sea should include the use of biodegradable plastics, and launching awareness campaigns so the public know about the problem and how they can take action to combat it. 

It also emphasised that we have to address the key threats to biodiversity and protect marine ecosystems, to preserve the long-term sustainability of the sea. But, it says, to protect the oceans, collaboration is key — both within the UK government, and globally. 

“The issues desired in this report are overwhelmingly global,” it says. “The UK shares the marine environment, trade, security challenges, and opportunities with its global partners. The long-term success of the UK’s marine and maritime interests will, to a large extent, therefore depend upon global action and collaboration."

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But, according to the report, there are serious advantages to protecting biodiversity in the sea and cashing in on what is described as the “ocean economy” — which is predicted to double to $3 trillion by 2030. 

The largest area of industrial growth, it suggests, will come from offshore wind, followed by marine aquaculture — the farming of fish, shellfish, etc.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Lord (Tariq) Ahmad said: “Both the opportunities and the challenges set out in this important report are global in scale and demand our urgent attention.”

“We must keep pushing our scientific understanding of the oceans, harness new technologies, and support commercial innovation,” he said. “Most of all, we must ensure that governments keep pace with this changing environment. International collaboration remains crucial in order to realise the fullest benefits of our marine industries and scientists, for the UK and the world.” 

Read more: Scientists Want You to Help Map Plastic Waste on Beaches — From the Comfort of Your Sofa

Foresight reports are written by experts to brief ministers on significant issues in both the medium and long-term. 

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Defend the Planet

Ocean Plastic Could Triple in a Decade Without Serious Action, Report Warns

By Imogen Calderwood