Exploring the link between plastic and climate change with Marine Biologist Dr Heidi Pearson

As we look to find solutions to the current environmental crisis, listening to the scientists dedicating time to researching these issues is imperative.

BRITA continues to work with its charity partners to understand how we can help address the sustainability challenges and opportunities faced by our customers and consumers.

In October 2021, we spoke to Dr Heidi Pearson, Associate Professor of Marine Biology, University of Alaska Southeast and key research partner of BRITA’s charity partner Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). Here’s what she said…


What would you say to a business leader about why they should help stop plastic pollution and tackle climate change?

Plastic pollution and climate change are currently two of the most serious threats to our planet. Plastics have invaded nearly every place on Earth. Even the deepest part of the ocean – the 11,000-m deep Mariana Trench - has plastic. Plastics never fully decompose. Instead, they slowly degrade into tinier and tinier pieces until they become intertwined with Earth’s soils, sediments, and seawater, making their way up the food web and posing a health risk to animals (and even humans!) that unknowingly ingest them. Even if discarded on land, many plastics make their way to the ocean. There, plastics degrade into a viscous soup, outnumbering plankton 6:1 in some areas.

Plastic pollution is also directly tied to climate change since conventional plastics are derived from fossil fuels, which cause climate change. We are already seeing the effects of climate change as droughts, floods, fires, heatwaves, snowstorms, and hurricanes become more frequent, severe, and unpredictable.

We have a narrow window of time to tackle climate change before the Earth starts on a trajectory of warming that may be irreversible. Ignoring climate change today will certainly be more costly in the future, so the time to act is now. It is also critical that we develop eco-friendly plastic alternatives that will preserve landfill space, create healthy ecosystems, and reduce our carbon footprint. This is also an exciting time, for us as we rise to meet these challenges, there are boundless opportunities for business growth and technological innovation.

How does the action taken by businesses in the UK make a difference in Alaska/to whales and dolphins and other marine life?

Climate change is a global problem, affecting every place on Earth. This is particularly true for Alaska, which has warmed at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the United States. Glaciers are noticeably shrinking, the timing of salmon runs is shifting, and black bears are shortening their hibernations. Greenhouse gas emissions occur at a global scale, so actions taken by businesses in the UK will have far-reaching effects in Alaska and elsewhere.

All of the world’s oceans are connected, creating one global ocean. Therefore, actions taken by businesses in the UK will make a difference to marine life everywhere. Reducing plastic pollution will help marine life to thrive by reducing entanglement risk, minimising the health risks of plastic ingestion, and maintaining healthy food webs. Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions will help to lessen sea temperature rise, ocean acidification, and sea level rise – all of which directly affect whales, dolphins, and other marine life. In particular, whales and dolphins are the ocean’s sentinels, and the changes we see in their behaviour, health, and birth/death rates are signals of what’s happening throughout the ocean. We can look to them to see the positive and negative impacts of our actions.

Do small daily actions such as using a reusable water bottle instead of buying single-use plastic bottles really make a difference to the devastating climate change you’re seeing?

Absolutely! Small, everyday actions are needed now more than ever. Using a reusable water bottle helps to combat both plastic pollution and climate change, so that simple action really goes a long way. Climate change is the most serious threat our species has ever faced, and it requires action by everyone, no matter how big or small that action is. We can all work to reduce our carbon footprint through reusable water bottles and countless other actions - reusable shopping bags, recycling and buying recycled goods, eating less meat, buying locally, and taking public transportation, walking or biking. Even doing just one of these simple actions is likely to start a chain reaction of other eco-friendly acts because it creates a sense of environmental mindfulness. This can help you to be more aware of other things you do in your daily life, and to start to make other earth-friendly changes. This can then start a positive feedback cycle not only within yourself, but that extends to those around you who see you taking these small daily actions. We have a lot of work to do, and quickly, but through collective action we can combat climate change.

If you’re unsure about where to start, then take a look at BRITA’s Greening Good Guide which includes ten simple tips and tricks to reduce the amount of single-use plastic we use and bring more sustainable habits into our daily routines.

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