On April 11, 2018, there were news stories about a young sperm whale that had washed up on the beach in Spain. The cause of death: 64 pounds of plastic and other debris. Most of the garbage in the whale was plastic that had lodged in its stomach.
By 2050, there will be more plastics in the oceans than there are fish. On a recent visit to a remote island in the ocean, scientists found 18 tons of plastic washed up on its shores. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 10 metric tons of pieces of plastic, ranging from straws to grocery bags, tampon sleeves, and water bottles, are transported into the Pacific Ocean every day from the Los Angeles area alone.
It seems we have a problem with plastics. Yet each and every one of us can do something about it.
Take a few minutes and think about your typical day. How many plastic items do you come into contact with every day? How much of your car is made of plastic? Do you bring your lunch to work in a plastic container? Do your kids have plastic toys? How about your dog? Do you use plastic water bottles, credit cards, carryout containers, straws, grocery bags, and/or computers?
The common thread is plastic. Just like plastic is ubiquitous in your life, it’s also ubiquitous in the environment, including the oceans. The worst of the plastics are the one-timers: the single use water bottles, utensils, disposable diapers, cups, straws and coffee stirrers, grocery bags, packaging, and other items we tend to use once and then toss away.
- The average “working life” of a plastic grocery bag is 15 minutes?
- More than 1 million plastic bags are used every minute?
- That packaging accounts for more than 40 percent of total plastic usage?
- In 2014, 100.7 billion plastic beverage bottles were sold in the US, which equals 315 bottles per person. Of those, 57 percent were plastic water bottles?
Problems with plastics in our oceans
Although the oceans are vast, they are a delicate ecosystem, finely tuned to sustain a wide range of marine life in a carefully orchestrated water dance. As humans continue to dump enormous amounts of poisons into these waters, that balance is being thrown off, creating a toxic brew that is deadly not only for the creatures that live in it but inhabitants of the land and air as well.
What are the problems with plastics in our oceans?
- They are causing sea birds to starve. When sea birds ingest pieces of plastic, their stomachs become full of the foreign material and they consume less food, which causes them to starve. Birds often mistake tiny pieces of plastic for food. By 2050, it’s been estimated that 99 percent of sea birds will have plastic in their stomachs.
- They wrap themselves around, impale, and are ingested by sea turtles. Research indicates that half of sea turtles around the world have eaten plastic.
- They are being swallowed by fish and other marine life. A study has shown that 25 percent of fish at California markets have plastics in their guts, primarily in the form of plastic microfibers.
- They absorb hazardous substances such as DDT, PCBs, and PAH. These chemicals can interfere with hormone functioning, cause cancer, and affect the nervous system. Once we ingest the fish who have eaten plastic, the toxins are passed along the food chain, including people.
- They deteriorate and release toxic chemicals into the water, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which are then taken in by marine life and ultimately end up in humans who eat them.
- Plastic pollution has a devastating impact on the economy of countries around the world. Tons of plastics on beaches affect tourism, damage fishing and aquaculture industries, and are costly to clean up. In addition, plastics that are discarded in the waste stream away from oceans clog up sewer systems and waterways on their way to the oceans, causing significant damage to infrastructure and costing huge amounts of money to clean up.
What you can do to reduce plastics in the oceans
Everyone plays a role in contributing to plastics in the oceans, and so every person can take steps to reduce that burden. No matter how small your effort, every action counts. Here are a few things you can do right now.
- Use stainless steel, ceramic, or glass water bottles instead of plastic. Stop using store bought one-time use plastic water bottles immediately!
- Bring your own take-home food containers with you to restaurants. Styrofoam, plastic coated boxes, and plastic clamshell type containers end up in the trash…and many find their way to the oceans.
- If you must use a straw, buy your own sustainable straw and carry it with you. In the US and UK, 550 million straws are thrown away every day.
- Take your groceries home in canvas, net, or other sustainable bags. About 1 trillion plastic grocery bags are thrown away every year, and many end up in the oceans.
- Use cloth diapers instead of disposable ones. In the US alone, 27.4 billion disposable diapers are tossed away every year.
- Choose feminine hygiene products that are plastic free. [Editor's Note: Our partner, Natracare makes a variety of tampons and pads that are plastic free.]
- Stay away from products with microbeads. Although there was a federal ban on the use of microbeads in toothpaste and health products that rinse off, such as soaps and body wash, the ban does not extend to deodorants, make-up, lotions, or plastic beads in household cleaners. A good rule of thumb is to use organic products in all categories whenever possible. (Note: These microbeads and microparticles also pollute the oceans when plastic breaks down.)
- Contact your legislators. The current administration is attempting to reduce the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget by $1 billion in 2019. Let your representatives know you are opposed to this move.