The pale-footed shearwater, chocolate-brown plumage, pink feet, is a patient zero. The seabird, which breeds in colonies off the Australian coast, suffers from plasticosity. Pieces of plastic that he thinks are edible cause the tissues of his digestive tract to become permanently inflamed. It scarred and hardens, the stomach can no longer work as it should. And the plastic that triggers all of this doesn't go away. Two months ago, scientists demonstrated this clinical picture in wild animals for the first time. There is little prospect of recovery. New plastic pours in year after year. The plastic waste in our oceans is, that is now clear at the latest, far more than an aesthetic or economic problem.

Anna-Lena Niemann

Editor in the "Technology and Engine" department.

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It makes sense to somehow want to get rid of what is good for the living beings of the oceans and, via the food chains, also for humans. Not only is the number of organizations that claim to rid the ocean of plastic waste growing, but also that of companies. At the same time, they promise their customers something else: You can feel part of this fight if you only buy a shoe or swimsuit made of "ocean plastic". The garbage in the oceans is marketed as a raw material that suggests: this product saves a turtle, a whale, a pale-footed shearwater. The truth is much more complicated.

What exactly is floating in the oceans?

"Marine plastic is a misleading term," says Andrea Stolte. The physicist and environmental scientist has been working for the WWF for years against plastic pollution in marine ecosystems. In one of her most recent projects with divers, she recovered about 26 tons of old, dumped or accidentally loosened fishing nets from the Baltic Sea off Sassnitz. But ocean plastic – that sounds like it belongs there, she says. That's one problem. Secondly, what is now sold on a larger scale under this term has in many cases not touched the ocean at all.

In order to understand why this is so and whether it can be problematized at all, you have to trace a lot. Who collects the waste, and how? How is it processed? What can be recycled? And: Where does the waste come from? What exactly floats where in the oceans?

Since the beginning of industrial plastics production in the 1950s, plastic waste has ended up in the sea. Worldwide, only just under ten percent of plastic waste is recycled anyway, while new production is increasing at the same time. More than half of all plastic ever produced is no more than 20 years old. Yoghurt cups from the 1970s float in the Arctic, lost flip-flops lie at the bottom of the deep sea, plastic is everywhere. There is hardly a fulmar left on the German North Sea that does not have plastic in it, microplastics can be found in all faecal samples of native seals and grey seals examined. In the fat and muscle tissue of sharks and whales in the Mediterranean, the degradation products of plastic additives can be detected.