Plastics are the greatest source of ocean debris worldwide. While everyone who uses plastic likely contributes to the problem, they can, with a few very low-cost changes, become a solution.
Sources of Ocean Pollution
According to the organization Plastic Debris Rivers to Sea, land-based sources of marine debris include all of the usual suspects: litter (especially bags and single-use disposables), garbage transport and landfills, construction debris, and commercial sources (think Yankee Stadium after a ball game or manufacturing waste).
Even people who live in America’s heartland can contribute to the problem, since much of the plastic pollution travels through storm sewers to waterways that end in the ocean. In the words of Charles Moore, “the ocean is downhill from everywhere.”
The Extent of Plastic Pollution in the Oceans
The extent of the marine plastics problem was discovered by ocean scientist and crusader Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Foundation on a voyage across the Pacific in 1997. He traversed an area known as the doldrums – usually avoided by sailors. He soon found himself sailing through a “plastic soup” of floating garbage concentrated by slowly circling currents. It’s now known as the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.
His research published in 1999 stunned scientists and the ocean-going public. He showed that plastic fragments, which do not degrade chemically but only break into smaller and smaller bits, were six times more plentiful by weight than zooplankton, tiny organisms at the base of the food chain. His later research found that plastic outweighs plankton by a factor of more than 2 in waters off the coast of Southern California.
The Effects of Plastic Pollution on Marine Life
Sea turtles mistake bags for squid. Birds, seals and whales get entangled in plastic fishing line. Most disturbingly, plastic floats and breaks down into tiny bits, which resemble the prey of many species. Plastic then enters the food chain when it is eaten by tiny zooplankton and seabirds.
The Northern Fulmar, a widespread North Pacific seabird resembling a gull, feeds at the ocean surface. Chosen as an indicator of marine debris, Oikonos researchers investigated the stomach contents of these birds collected as bycatch or as a result of oil spills in California and Alaska from 2003 to 2009. When compared with earlier studies, the data indicated that the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean around those states is increasing. They found that 72% to 85% of fulmar stomachs contained plastic.
Some chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), can leak out of plastic, and their effects in the environment are unknown. On March 29, 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency announced a research initiative to assess the amount of BPA in surface, ground, and drinking water and to evaluate its long-term effects on wildlife.
Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, and Recycle Plastics
The best solution to the problem of plastic pollution is to eliminate its use as much as possible. Since plastic is so long-lasting in the environment, it is best limited to jobs that require long-lasting materials. The following is a list of simple steps that will help the average household decrease its “plastic footprint:”
- Replace plastic baggies and wrap with good old-fashioned wax paper. Wax paper bags are increasingly available and work just fine for keeping the kids’ lunches fresh.
- Use permanent cloth or recycled plastic bags to carry groceries, or ask for paper bags if necessary.
- Try to reduce purchase of goods in plastic wrapping and containers. If that’s not possible, reuse and recycle those yogurt containers.
- Be on the look out for biodegradable plastic trash bags or ask stores to stock them. But beware, they are the priciest recommendation in this list: a whole $3 to $4 more than regular plastic bags!
- Don’t throw plastic away! Some cities have recycling programs for aluminum, glass, and plastic. A little known fact is that major chain stores, such as Krogers, Walmart, and Safeway, often have a bin for depositing plastic bags for recycling. They can be well-hidden, so ask management for their whereabouts.
- Finally, support common sense approaches to reducing pollution, such as local policies aimed at promoting recycling or even banning plastic bags.
Plastics are a major source of ocean pollution, and they originate from all over the world, not just coastal states. They may very well be contributing to insidious chemical pollution that could be passed through the food chain all the way to humans who enjoy seafood. The pollution has increased through decades of profligate plastic use. It will take billions of small, daily responsible decisions to set the problem right.