Media Coverage: Irish Times 2013

Originally posted on 16/12/2013 on


I was asked to write short piece about my research in relation to Christmas. It was to be part of the Irish Independent’s Christmas supplement, called ‘Science of Christmas’ in partnership with the Irish Research Council. So I put together a little story about how Santa was trying to minimise the impact of Christmas on planet Earth. The piece was published on 11/12/13, complete with a cheesy Christmas picture. You can find the full text below.

– Does Santa care about planet Earth?

His annual trip around the world gives Santa a great view of any changes on planet earth. Over the years, one of the things he notices is the growing amount of plastic in the sea.

Plastics have only been around since the early 1990s with the introduction of Bakelite in 1970 while mass production began in the 1040s. Now, the use of plastic for packing and in industry is widespread.

Even though many plastic items are recycled, about 10% of what is produced will end up in the ocean where it can accumulate and persist for hundreds of years.

This accumulation in the marine environment I a worrying trend and one that is being studied by scientists internationally.

Plastics build up on shorelines, in seawater and on the sea bed. Along with the unsightly impact, they also affect the environment in a number of ways. Marine animals can become entangled in them. Sea birds, marine mammals and sea turtles can swallow plastics items, both accidentally and mistakenly targeting them for food items. Ingestion can lead to malnutrition- because it can cause a blockage and decrease the nutritional intake- starvation and sometimes death.

It is not only the large items of plastic that cause problems; over time, larger plastic break down into smaller and smaller pieces, making it easier for smaller organisms to mistake them for items of prey or accidentally eat them. These microplastics are less than 5mm in size- about the size of half a grain of rice- and fish, invertebrates, such as mussels and prawns, as well as sea bird have been found to ingest them. By the way, polyester and acrylic fibres can also separate from clothes during washing and eventually find their way into the sea, while certain cosmetic products contain microplastic scrubbers. These also contribute to the accumulation of microplastics.

The effect of ingestion of microplastics still needs to be fully understood, but it has been suggested that they can cause the same damage as larger items of debris.

I am currently involved in research at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), where I am investigating the effect of microplastics on the marine environment in the North Atlantic and Irish waters. I have spent a lot of time on the Marine Institute’s research vessel, the R.V. Celtic Explorer, to collect water and biological samples. On these trips, balloon yoga mats, washing up gloves and bottles are among the many plastic items you see bobbing around on the sea.

Wisely, Santa decided it was time to do his best to minimise the impact of Christmas on the marine environment. He told his elves to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used in his workshop, so that he leaves less unnecessary and potentially damaging packaging in home.

That, in turn, reduces the amount of rubbish to be disposed of at the end of the Christmas period. The less plastic packaging use, the less that can end up in the sea. Plastic is a convenient and widely use produced and it is impossible to eliminate it completely, however by reducing its use, Santa is doing his bit to help preserve the environment for future generations

Originally written for

 Published by Amy Lusher


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