With only 40% of Americans living close to the coast, ocean health is likely not something we think too much of. Having lived most of my life near the beach, I saw the obvious deterioration; primarily trash left on the beach but it’s what I couldn’t see, what is floating on or below the ocean’s surface, that is posing the biggest threat to our oceans. Plastic!
Plastic touches all of our lives, from the cars we drive to the computers we work with and the food packaging we buy and sadly, many plastic products are used once and thrown away. As production of this material increases, its waste increases as well; residues that end up contaminating our oceans and the lives that inhabit it.
Currently there is a reported 8 million tons of plastic reaching our oceans annually mostly in the form of small plastic particles that are then ingested by marine animals. Recent studies have shown that 60% of seabirds in the world have ingested and currently accumulate plastic waste in their digestive systems, a figure they predict will rise to 99 percent by 2050.
Research indicates that half of sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic. Many turtles starve after doing so, mistakenly believing they have eaten enough because their stomachs are full. Plastic pollution is so pervasive on many beaches that it’s affecting turtles’ reproduction rates by altering the temperatures of the sand where incubation occurs. The young are especially at risk because they are not as selective as their elders about what they eat and tend to drift with currents, just as plastic does.
Ingesting plastic causes life-threatening problems in a multitude of species including compromised fitness, difficulty absorbing nutrients and inability to eat efficiently—all vital for the survival of the species. Unless action is taken soon to address this urgent problem, scientists predict that the weight of ocean plastics will exceed the combined weight of all of the fish in the seas by 2050.
So where is this plastic coming from? 80% of the plastic waste that today contaminates our waters comes from the land; our homes, landfills and from the waste deliberately dumped directly into the ocean. Among the main plastic tools that threaten marine biodiversity today, a study by Ocean Conservancy highlights: Fishing nets, filaments, buoys, plastic cutlery, plastic cups, plastic container caps, fast food containers, plastic bags, balloons, bottles, plastic bulbs, cigarette butts, among others.
Plastic production is expected to double over the next ten years. The future of plastics in our oceans will be greatly determined by the way we handle plastics on land.
So what can you do?
1. Reduce Your Use of Single-Use Plastics
The easiest and most direct way that you can make an impact is by reducing your own use of single-use plastics. These include plastic bags, straws, water bottles, utensils, cups, dry cleaning bags, take-out containers, and any other plastic items that are used once and then thrown away. The best way to do this is by refusing any single-use plastics that you do not need and by purchasing, and carrying with you, reusable versions of those products, including reusable grocery bags, produce bags, bottles, utensils, coffee cups, and dry cleaning garment bags. And when you refuse single-use plastic items, help businesses by letting them know that you would like them to offer alternatives.
2. Recycle Properly
This should go without saying, but when you use single-use (and other) plastics that can be recycled, always be sure to recycle them. At present, just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. Recycling helps keep plastics out of the ocean and reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation. If you need help finding a place to recycle plastic waste near you, check Earth911’s recycling directory. It's also important to check with your local recycling center about the types of plastic they accept.
3. Participate In (or Organize) a Beach or River Cleanup
Help remove plastics from the ocean and prevent them from getting there in the first place by participating in, or organizing a cleanup of your local beach or waterway. This is one of the most direct and rewarding ways to fight ocean plastic pollution. You can simply go to the beach or waterway and collect plastic waste on your own or with friends or family, or you can join a local organization’s cleanup or an international event like the International Coastal Cleanup.
4. Support Bans
Many municipalities around the world have enacted bans on single use plastic bags, takeout containers, and bottles. You can support the adoption of such policies in your community. Here is a list of resources for legislative bodies considering limiting the use of plastic bags.
5. Avoid Products Containing Microbeads
Tiny plastic particles, called “microbeads,” have become a growing source of ocean plastic pollution in recent years. Microbeads are found in some face scrubs, toothpastes, and bodywashes, and they readily enter our oceans and waterways through our sewer systems, and affect hundreds of marine species. Avoid products containing plastic microbeads by looking for “polythelene” and “polypropylene” on the ingredient labels of your cosmetic products (find a list of products containing microbeads here).
6. Spread the Word and live the Word
Stay informed on issues related to plastic pollution and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution and lead by example.
7. Support Organizations Addressing Plastic Pollution
There are many non-profit organizations working to reduce and eliminate ocean plastic pollution in a variety of different ways, including Oceanic Society, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres, Algalita, Plastic Soup Foundation, and others. These organizations rely on donations from people like you to continue their important work. Even small donations can make a big difference!