Most of us have heard about the problem of plastic in the oceans, but unless we live near water that is contaminated, it can be hard to grasp how bad it is.
What does this mess of plastics and other human-made trash in the oceans mean about our deepest relationship to the planet and to ourselves?
We can start to understand some of our cultural programming by thinking about our usage of plastic and packaging. Packaging and plastic are everywhere and they help give us a life of convenience - or at least that is what we believe. The question to ponder though is - what do we lose? Do we gain anything from the convenience? The convenience of packaging is part of our modern frenzy to do more, faster. Is this what we really want? It is certainly not in balance with the environment.
The impact of plastic in the ocean is a big problem being tackled by ecologists, scientists, marine biologists and citizens across the globe.
Two of the most common causes of habitat loss in the oceans are from oil spills and industrial/residential waste, which includes plastics washing into the ocean.
Most people don't understand how delicate marine systems are in our global ecosystem.
Damaging or removing a single species in an ecosystem can significantly impact many other species on the land and in the water or even devastate the ecosystem. The oceans cover a large percentage of the earth, are interconnected and ultimately function as one body of water. What happens in one part of the ocean can impact other parts very quickly.
Accumulated plastics and trash in our oceans devastate wildlife, beaches, nature preserves, and create “ocean landfills.”
Some of the trash is decades old. Some beaches are buried under five to ten feet of trash, while other beaches are riddled with "plastic sand," millions of grain-like pieces of plastic that are practically impossible to clean up.
Here are some facts about the impact of plastic in the oceans:
Plastic particles in the ocean are mistaken for food and eaten by sea birds and other sea creatures.
Plastic bags floating in the oceans get wrapped around living coral reefs which smothers and kills them.
Plastic pieces can attract and hold hydrophobic elements like PCB and DDT up to one-million times background levels. As a result, floating plastic is like a poison pill.
The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic (source: UN Environment Program).
Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean. Seventy percent of that eventually sinks, damaging life on the ocean floor (source: Greenpeace).
30% of it floats and ends up in gyres - large circulating ocean currents, forming massive garbage patches with some plastic eventually washing up on shores in coastal areas.
Massive ocean landfills are one of the devastating results of plastics in the ocean!
Four-fifths of marine trash comes from land. It is made up of 90% plastic and collects together to form a giant trash mass.
The most common marine trash mass of this type is known as the Pacific Garbage Patch. This huge mass of trash is the largest landfill in the world, two times the size of Texas with 7 billion pounds of plastic, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific Garbage Patch is in a gyre. A gyre is a large circular ocean current created by high-pressure air currents. The spin of the water picks up anything nearby, gradually pushing everything towards the center of the gyre, in a clockwise or counter-clockwise spin.
The North Pacific Garbage patch is most talked about, probably because it is the largest, but there are actually gyres, and hence garbage patches, in every ocean body. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. In addition, the Pacific Garbage Patch has actually given birth to two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, sometimes collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“25 percent of our planet or 40% of our oceans is a toilet that never flushes” says Captain Charles Moore, the scientist who discovered the Pacific Garbage Patch.
Where is all this plastic in the ocean coming from?
As part of the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup, on a single day in 2007, nearly 400,000 volunteers around the world picked up more than 6 million pounds of trash. A majority of the items were single-use disposable plastic items, such as plastic bags and Styrofoam containers.
Each year enough trash---most of it plastic---floats down the Los Angeles River to fill the Rose Bowl two stories deep. (Los Angeles Times, "Altered Oceans")
Since water keeps the plastic cool and algae blocks ultraviolet rays, every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that has flowed into the ocean is still out there somewhere. (Research Triangle Institute)
Plastic pieces outweigh surface zooplankton in the Central North Pacific by a factor of 6 to 1. (Algalita Marine Research Foundation)
Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups. (Center for Marine Conservation)
The best thing we can do is stop using plastics that could end up in the ocean.
We can make the simple change to stop using single-use plastic bags by replacing them with sustainable options like Hands On Hemp reusable bags. We can try to always buy products in glass and other sustainable materials.
Whenever possible, make conscious and consistent choices away from plastic.
Let's question the consumeristic mentality of our western culture, make needed changes in our own lives and help educate others.
We can also support organizations that help with ocean cleanup. We list some of the organizations that we support on our "Links We Like" page.