Our Plastic Pacific Ocean
It’s early on a summer day and you’re strolling along a beautiful beach watching the sun’s rays strike the surf and sand. Monterey Bay, home to the largest national marine sanctuary in the United States, supports a huge variety of marine life species. The waves roll in and draw out, clean and crisp. What a magnificent sight. You glance ahead at the glistening sand and see thousands of colored pebbles mixed with the beige beach sand.
As you get closer you realize they’re not pebbles at all, just little pieces of plastic in a tangled thrill of color, a cacophony of red, blue, green, and clear plastic. All mixed with bird feathers, shells, kelp, driftwood and the real beach sand. The more you look, the more trash you see, plastic bags, cigarette butts, balloons, drinking straws, it goes on and on. And the waves roll in, their incessant dumping of trash on the shore, is only a tiny fraction of what’s floating in the ocean blue water and haunting their depths.
While this is more than enough to dampen the thrill of enjoying the beauty of the powerful Pacific, this day could have been worse. Fortunately, on this day you didn’t see the decaying carcass of a sea bird, sea turtle, fish or mammal. An alarming number of our marine creatures are being killed by plastic, and it’s only getting worse. Many of these creatures have traveled for thousands of miles in search of food for their young. The problem is they’re confusing plastic for food while we’re confusing plastic for convenience.
The Numbers Behind the Problem
Humans have an immense appetite for plastic. Approximately 299 million tons of plastic were produced in 2013, an increase of 4% over the previous year.
Of the plastic produced, a lot is not recycled or incinerated. Europe is the best recycler, recycling or incinerating 62% of all plastic produced. The US recycles a pathetic 9%. Emerging Asian countries recycle less again. And as economies grow in emerging markets, plastic consumption typically far outstrips infrastructure to collect and recycle it. Currently just five developing Asian countries contribute about 60% of all ocean plastic.
The result is that 10-20 million tons of plastic washes into the oceans every year. A recent study conservatively estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world’s oceans. There is currently one ton of plastic in the ocean for every five tons of fish; if no action is taken, plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish by 2050.
The plastics break down in the sun. They end up as tiny particles that gather in the oceans in five gyres, areas where ocean currents converge. The largest gyre is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This gyre, properly called the North Pacific Gyre, is estimated to be about twice the size of Texas and contains a third of all ocean plastic. The plastics float on the surface and beneath the waves where they are confused by sea-life for food.
Plastic Kills (we’ll spare you the grisly photos)
Ocean plastics are lethal. At least one million seabirds and one hundred thousand marine mammals die each year due to plastic pollution. It affects sea life from fish to birds to whales. The plastic is eaten and it entangles sea-life, a killer that will continue to kill for thousands of years after plastics stop being produced.
A study published in 2015 investigated fish sold at local markets in California and Indonesia, and found that 25% of the Californian fish contained plastic. A similar proportion was observed in the Indonesian fish.
There were the heart-breaking images of dead albatross chicks on Midway Atoll, 2,000 miles from any substantial land, their guts filled with indigestible plastic that shreds their gut wall and fills them up. The chicks starve to death.
Then there was the story of 13 juvenile whales that washed up dead on German beaches in early 2016, their stomachs filled with plastic. While scientists believe they were not killed directly by the plastic, had they survived, the amount of plastic in their gut would have caused problems in the future
Further studies show that ocean borne plastic is having a serious impact on critically endangered species by the animals either eating the plastic or getting entangled in it. About 80% of those animals effected by plastic are injured or killed by it.
The problem of plastic in our oceans isn’t just a matter for ocean life. These plastics are slowly poisoning us too. The plastics absorb toxic pollutants such as PCBs and DDTs which enter the food chain and bio accumulate in fish. We ultimately eat fish that has high levels of pollutants.
This Plastic Problem Can Be Solved
Plastic is a problem. A problem of our creation, and a problem that will long outlive us. It is starving our oceans of food, and slowly poisoning us. It feels so big that we can’t find a way to solve it, but there is a way. Human ingenuity is boundless.
The problem will be solved on three fronts:
· We will reduce plastic consumed, substituting it for materials that do the same job.
· Where plastics are consumed, we will collect waste plastics much more effectively.
· We will clean up plastics that are already in the environment.
One of the ways to reduce the amount of plastic produced and consumed is to cut down on disposable plastic. Plastic bags used for shopping are a simple target, and more and more countries are either banning them or taxing their use. They are easily replaced with reusable bags that require no plastic at all.
Collection systems can improve, especially in developing Asian countries. We can make an immense reduction in the amount of waste entering our oceans by focusing on China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. By helping those countries improve collection systems and stop leakage from within waste systems, we can reduce the amount of plastic entering our oceans by 30%.
And then there is cleaning up plastics already in the environment. A recent high profile proposal is The Ocean Cleanup. While this particular proposal has attracted some criticism, the collection of plastic in rivers and drains has been done for decades and works.
There is no single solution that will stop the amount of plastic in our oceans, but many people working on many solutions can.
The Waves, They Roll In
The waves that roll in along our beaches carry the hope of oceans of wise decisions.
They carry the murmur of a million acts of kindness. Turning down the offer of a disposable plastic bag at checkout. Carrying a refillable water bottle rather than buying a single use bottle. Being conscious of just what plastic is needed and what is not, and remaining aware to the consequences of thoughtless plastic consumption and disposal.
They carry the whisper of distant countries doing good things for the environment. Creating new waste collection systems. Repairing broken ones. Recognizing that only the best will do for our oceans.
They carry the gentle song of people hard at work, working in a million different ways to clear plastic from their oceans and their beaches.
The waves roll in; they sing for the future we can all achieve together. A future where albatross and whales and fish thrive in an ocean that’s bountiful and clean and as much a part of our life as it is theirs.
Celebrate World Oceans Day, June 8, 2016