Oceans: The Perils of Plastic

Plastic bags being washed in the Buringanga River, Bangladesh. Photo by Randy Olson, National Geographic.

Plastic bags being washed in the Buringanga River, Bangladesh. Photo by Randy Olson, National Geographic.

Travelers, ecotourists,  beach-goers, sports fans, consumers: It doesn’t matter where you live or travel, plastic pollution is invading our oceans—it is affecting you and your well-being, as well as animals, birds and fish that depend on the oceans.

Greenbiz says, “Plastic …is found all over our oceans, inside fish and other creatures and among grains of salt…in the deepest parts of the Marianas Trench to the surface of Arctic ice. While plastic has enabled environmental and societal advancements, it does not belong in our seas.”

Plastic isn’t the only threat to oceans: There’s dangerous depletion of world fishing stocks due to overfishing – and illegal fishing.  There’s ocean acidification: Increased carbon dioxide from human activity reacts with seawater, forms carbonic acid in the water and affects marine organisms.   There’s coral bleaching:  hotter water temperatures cause coral to eject algae, destroying the interdependence they thrive on.

Make no mistake – “Plastic in the ocean is reaching crisis proportions,” says Greenbiz.

Green News Update is offering advice and tips on what you can do—as an individual consumer or family. In a follow-up article, we’ll offer concrete advice on how you can influence manufacturers and consumer brands to reduce and eliminate plastic.

A front end loader removes trash that was left on Boubon Street after last night's Mardi Gras Celebration, Early Wednesday morning Feb. 25, 2009, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Brian Lawdermilk)

A front end loader removes trash that was left on Bourbon Street after last night’s Mardi Gras Celebration, Early Wednesday morning Feb. 25, 2009, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Brian Lawdermilk)

How did we get here?

First we got here because the U.S. – and many other countries – love plastic, both as packaging and as products. We’re as addicted to plastic as we are to sugary treats; manufacturers and retailers love feeding our appetite.  Just think of lightweight plastic toys that make it easy for kids to play, or multiple car parts that reduce a vehicle’s weight and improve its fuel economy.  How many TV remotes of hard-shelled plastics have you owned and thrown away? How many plastic bags are piling up at home from the newspaper or grocery store?

Recycled materials bound for recycling facility (2009)

Recycled materials bound for recycling facility (2009)

Second,  experts use the term “leaks” to describe something pretty basic:  plastic waste is not being recycled at the source of manufacturing, and waste management systems that are overloaded and failing. Only about 14% of all plastic is being recycled.

Zambezi Shark in the nets taken in Durban, Kwa-zulu Natal , South Africa in July 2007. Courtesy Marine Photo Bank

Zambezi Shark in the nets taken in Durban, Kwa-zulu Natal , South Africa in July 2007. Courtesy Marine Photo Bank

The state of trash in the oceans

  • Plastic is 90% of the trash in the ocean
  • 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans every year–  equal to one garbage truck load every minute
  • There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans
  • 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide annually.  More than one million bags are used every minute.
  • Plastic takes 500-1000 years to decompose—sometimes not at all
  • Plastic affects 100,000 marine animals, 1 million seabirds
  • The biggest culprit: Single use containers and plastic straws (up to 500 million straws a day)

More facts for you

Where is plastic “pollution” located?

Plastic has been found on the floor of the Marianas Trench (the deepest part of the world’s oceans) and on the surface of Arctic ice. Read more

The largest assemblage of ocean plastic is in five gyres around the world that are large systems of circulating ocean currents. The so-called “Big 5” circulate ocean water and also collect marine trash, most of it plastic that can circulate for years. These are tiny plastics hard to see with the naked eye, and they exist throughout the water column.  NOAA Expert Dianna Parker says it is like “a peppery soup.”  Check out NOAA’s  10-minute podcast.

Great Pacific Gyre. Courtesy of NOAA.

Great Pacific Gyre. Courtesy of NOAA.

The largest —the size of Texas — is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California. It’s estimated to weigh 80,000 tons and contain 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

Who’s Doing the Most Damage?

Just five countries generate more than 50% of ocean plastic waste: China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand.

The most plastic trash flows through these rivers: Yangtze, Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, Nile, Pearl River, Amur, the Niger, Mekong. Learn more

Who and what is being harmed?

Below the waterline. Copyright Caroline Power Photography.

Below the waterline. Copyright Caroline Power Photography.

Plastic in every form is choking and killing marine life, sea birds, and fin fish in various ways. Fish and seabirds often eat small plastic particles, thinking they are food.

Watch the video – freeing a humpback calf  from  shark netting

We’ve all seen photos of hideous webs of ocean plastic trash, often miles of below-water nylon gillnets, that trap fish and air-breathing marine mammals, especially whales and sea turtles. Watch the video of Texas A&M biologist removing a straw from a Ridley turtle

Just as insidious are microplastics and microbeads.

Microplastics and microbeads (in cosmetics and cleansers) are virtually invisible and they are spreading worldwide. And since they penetrate the entire water column, plastics travel up the food chain – to marine mammals, predators, and also to humans who eat wild-caught fish from rivers, lakes and the ocean.

Microbeads are manufactured solid plastic particles of less than one millimeter in their largest dimension. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. List of products with microbeads.

Business Insider reports, “[B]ecause they’re so small, microbeads don’t get filtered out by wastewater treatment plants. Instead, they get discharged directly into rivers, lakes, and the ocean.
“….[F]ish, turtles, and other aquatic wildlife feed on the tiny bits of plastic, which to them are often indistinguishable from food. But rather than simply getting eaten and discharged by the animals, the microbeads become lodged in the animals’ stomachs or intestines. When this happens, the animals often stop eating and die of starvation or suffer other health problems.”

Microplastics may be in personal care products than solely the ‘classic’ plastic microbeads: Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or Nylon.

Here’s a list of U.S. states that have microbead bans: California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey (as of 2015). Oct 8, 2015.

What You Can Do

c bottles courtesy of Manchester recycles

Courtesy of Manchester recycles

There are many ways to trim your plastic footprint – some are not so easy – by reducing or eliminating plastics from your home, shopping, and packaging.  Educate yourself: Read more about the risk to our oceans from plastic in National Geographic

You need to make a conscious decision to stop buying plastics that cannot be recycled, and strengthen your efforts to find responsible recycling outlets for everything that is recyclable.

We’re sharing many useful suggestions, thanks to plasticoceans.org, earthday.org, and Wikipedia, and have added a few of our own!

  • Keep in mind: Packaging is the largest end use market segment– accounting for over 40% of total plastic usage.
  • Carry your own reusable bottle — skip single-use water bottles
  • Ask for filtered water at the restaurant, don’t buy single use plastic bottles.
  • Stop using plastic straws for your carryout coffee and beverages! Amphibians ingest them, and get straws stuck up their noses! Take the no-straw pledge
  • Stop using disposable cutlery, coffee cup lids, plastic wraps, disposable razors.
  • Don’t use disposable plastic bags ( groceries or shopping bags) Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store or when shopping – cotton, canvas,
  • Purchase cereal, pasta, rice from bulk bins and fill a reusable bag or container

Boycott microbeads!

Crushed-Plastic-Bottles. Courtesy of earth 911

Crushed-Plastic-Bottles. Courtesy of earth 911

Your personal recycling checklist :

  • Educate yourself on which plastics can be recycled, and which cannot.
  • Check out how your apartment building, neighborhood, city, is handling plastics recycling—and push to get recycling made a priority.
  • Pick up outdoor trash: you’ll find plastic water and juice bottles, lids, carry out containers, and odd bits of plastic. Get this stuff into a proper trash receptable or take it home for your recycling bin. The fish and turtles will thank you!
  • Volunteer to pick up plastic and trash at your local waterway or a beach cleanup.

Coming soon: The Perils of Plastic will share what companies, manufacturers and retailers are doing — Starbucks, Unilever, Marriott, the Port of Amsterdam, and more!