Some people go to the beach to play, others go to decompress and recharge. There can be something so calming about sitting on a quiet beach and just watching the waves roll in. Oceans are beautiful and the water can be so clear but sometimes you get out too far and you can’t see the bottom, you have no idea what’s floating or swimming around down there. My husband always laughs at me because I prefer to swim in a swimming pool instead of a lake or ocean. Many years ago, I told him I don’t like to swim in fish poop. You know how husbands are super helpful at remembering a phrase and then bringing it up every time there is a smidge of an opportunity? Well, he sure latched on to that fish poop comment. Every time we talk about going on a beach vacation, I am reminded about my comment. We went to French Polynesia on our honeymoon and the water was absolutely breathtaking. The fish were so colorful and the water so blue. Unfortunately, in parts of our world, the water isn’t pristine and gorgeous. Just under the surface, float things that are hazardous to our Earth and those that inhabit it. We all must do our part to save these beautiful oceans from plastic pollution.
Plastic Pollution is Suffocating Our Oceans
Our planet is home to 5 gyres. A gyre is defined by the National Geographic Society as a circular ocean current formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. Think of it like a whirlpool. Plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic toys, fishing nets, you name it, have found their way from our waterways into the ocean to get swept up into these gyres and basically become a big bowl of plastic soup. The biggest is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and it is in the North Pacific Gyre. It’s almost entirely made of plastic and its size is estimated to be more than two times the size of Texas. Two times the size of Texas in plastic!?! Are you kidding me? And that’s just one patch. From the research I have done, these garbage patches are not like floating islands but rather a soup of plastic particles.
Importance of Oceans
Oceans are not only a place for us to swim, snorkel, surf, and boat but they generate most (70%) of the oxygen we breath. So, they’re kind of important to us. Oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis by marine plants. Remember when we learned about photosynthesis in elementary school? If you have kids, you either had or will get a second shot at learning about it again. Science is not a second language for me so for a detailed explanation of this process, click here.
Our oceans are also home to the world’s largest source of protein, fish! One billion people depend on fish as their animal source for protein. I don’t know about you but it seems like every day I read another article about the benefits of eating fish like salmon but in my opinion, the best salmon is wild caught from the ocean, not a farm. I’m pretty sure all these health benefits are not coming from the microplastic the fish are eating.
Photo Courtesy of 5 Gyres
80% of marine litter comes from a land based business and 80-90% of that is made from plastic. Only 1-3% of plastics used are recycled so what doesn’t make it down into a landfill can be found littering our land and our water. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades into what’s known as microplastics. That means that over time, the sun breaks it into smaller and smaller pieces and these are ingested by fish and other marine life and then by humans. So, if that salmon you are about to eat came from the ocean, there’s a good chance it has already ingested some plastic. I don’t know why I keep using salmon as my example but you get the picture.
Plastic, It’s What For Dinner
Photo Courtesy of 5 Gyres
Oceans are filled with 6 times more plastic than plankton. Plankton is the main source of food for many ocean animals. For seabirds, they mistake bits of plastic for food and wind up feeding it to their chicks. Several species of sea turtles feed on jellyfish. A plastic bag floating under water can look an awful lot like a jellyfish to a sea turtle. You can see how this has become a problem.
Not only is plastic made from chemicals, when it photodegrades in to small pieces, those small pieces become like sponges sucking up other chemicals that are found in the water. Pesticides that are in ground water runoff, chemicals from industrial manufacturing, municipal waste, toxins in the air, etc. These all accumulate in the bodies of marine animals which then become food that we eat.
What’s All The Fuss
Two chemicals of concern in plastics, BPA (bisphenol A) and Phthalates, are found in plastic bottles, straws, bags, etc. BPA makes plastics more durable while Phthalates make plastics more flexible. Many of the plastics that wind up in the ocean and become food for our fish and marine life, contain these chemicals that become part of our food chain. BPA and Phthalates can leech into the contents of a bottle or can. These chemicals can then be absorbed into our blood stream and disrupt the normal functioning of the cell. Over the past 20 years, research has been conducted and shows that these two chemicals are endocrine disruptors and can be linked to hormone imbalances as well as negatively impacting fertility in both men and women. Phthalates have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues. Anyone feel like they’re watching a tv drug commercial?
Harming Ocean Life
Many species are on the verge of extinction!?! 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed each year as a result of the plastic polluting our oceans. Ingesting plastic can lead to false feelings of satiation, ulceration, internal perforation, and death. One of the mammals in danger of becoming extinct is the Hawaiian Monk Seal. These little guys (among many other mammals) get caught up in discarded plastic fishing nets and die there. Work is underway to bring this species back from the verge of extinction however, discarded fishing nets are finding their way into the pup nurseries where the pups get tangled up and can’t get free. There are any number of video’s online showing the fate suffered by our ocean life and coastal species, all as a result of our addiction to single-use plastic.
The Cost of Plastic
All that plastic floating around is not only harming our marine life and our personal and environmental health, it’s hurting our wallets. A few years ago, we vacationed on the east coast of Mexico and the seaweed was everywhere in the water. Just sort of hanging around at the edge of the water. Once you got further out, it was fine but I remember hating that feeling of trying to wade our way through. Imagine if that was plastic soup, yuck! If the beaches and water aren’t clean, tourists won’t visit and those tourism dollars won’t be flowing in. Litter from the ocean washes up on the beaches, someone has to clean it up. Think back to Tom Hanks in Castaway and his ball, Wilson. That ball came from somewhere. Clean-up, declines in tourism and financial damage to the fishing industry are all costs that need to be accounted for when we look at the whole picture.
What’s The Solution
Right now, today, we can all decide to forego single-use plastic and instead choose reusable options. When you’re grocery shopping, you probably don’t need produce bags for things like bananas, melons, winter squash, etc. If you don’t already have reusable grocery bags, any old cloth bag you can find at home will do. Heck, if you have some paper bags at home, they work just as well. Heading out to lunch with some friends? Does your cup really need a lid or a straw? Most likely, you don’t use them at home so forego them in restaurants. The best solution starts at home. The less waste we make, the less that finds its way in to our rivers, lakes, streams and eventually our oceans.
Hopefully, our small choices at home will have a great impact on the problems out at sea! I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to enjoy all that our oceans have to offer. What’s one change you can commit to making?
Plastics in the Waste Stream: The Macro Problem of MicroPlastics – Danimer Scientific
BPA-Free Plastic Containers May Be Just As Hazardous – Scientific American