Plastic in Our Oceans

Our addiction to plastics has big consequences

Plastic in Our Oceans

The plastic drinking straw you threw in the garbage could end up in the belly of a sea turtle. Where does the plastic we use end up? Some ends up in our oceans.

Remember that iced latte you had last summer? What if you found out the plastic straw you used ended up in the ocean, eaten by a sea turtle or dolphin? Believe it or not, even if you disposed of it properly, it may be the case.

Although we would like to believe that the plastic we discard on a daily basis disappears, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In the ocean plastic either collects on beaches or moves with the tides, eventually accumulating in ocean gyres—giant, continually rotating whirlpools formed by currents and weather patterns.

Except for a relatively small percentage of debris from ships and fishing boats, most plastic debris originates on land. It ends up in the oceans, blown by the wind, carried by waterways such as streams and rivers, or blown off garbage trucks or other vehicles. Even when we take care not to litter and to dispose of our plastic waste at the dump, plastic can end up in the oceans when landfills are not well managed.

According to Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of Georgia Strait Alliance (a BC-based environmental group), “It’s the millions of these minor incidents that build up.” Indeed, Fisheries and Oceans Canada claims that an estimated 6.4 million tonnes of garbage enter the oceans every year.

Chemical contamination

Instead of decomposing in the environment, plastic breaks down into tiny pieces scientists call “microplastic.” These tiny plastic pieces act as magnets for toxins, absorbing chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—harmful chemicals that stay in the environment without breaking down. “These compounds don’t mix with water but they stick to plastic, so the plastic becomes toxic over time,” says Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the California-based organization 5 Gyres.

For instance, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the infamous insecticide DDT have both now been phased out, but they remain in the environment and have been detected in marine plastic.

Other harmful chemicals still in use that have been detected in plastic marine debris include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and bisphenol A (BPA).

Animals at risk

Plastic debris hurts more than just the natural landscape. “It affects wildlife in two ways: entanglement and ingestion,” says Eriksen.

For instance, according to Bettina Saier, director of the Oceans Program at World Wildlife Fund Canada, “140 species have been found entangled in marine plastics; some of them, such as leatherback turtles, are endangered; others, such as rare whales, have been found drowned.”

Animals also frequently consume plastic, thinking it is food: “86 percent of turtles, 44 percent of marine birds, and 43 percent of marine mammals have plastic in their guts,” says Saier. “In the case of filter feeders like whales,” says Wilhelmson, “they open their mouths and consume plastic indirectly.”

To sea turtles that eat jellyfish, for instance, a plastic bag ebbing and flowing in the waves looks like dinner. When the plastic fills up in the stomachs of these animals, they feel full, so they eat less and end up dying of starvation.

Up the food chain

The POP-laden microplastic ingested by marine animals may cause harmful effects on the entire food web. One recent study suggested that bottlenose dolphins with high levels of PCBs are more likely to have anemia, hypothyroidism, and a weakened immune system. Plus, POPs can disrupt the reproductive hormones of birds.

Studies have also concluded that the high levels of PCBs in the indigenous people of Alaska, Greenland, and Canada come from the high levels of these compounds found in the marine mammals they traditionally eat. This realization shows us just how intertwined humans are with all of the other species with whom we share this planet.

Wilhelmson agrees: “We use the environment as a laboratory experiment, and we’re the guinea pigs … It’s an inevitably harmful view to see the environment as apart from us.”

The root of the problem

Plastic itself isn’t the culprit—it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do: be incredibly durable and persistent. Unfortunately, these qualities allow it to remain in the environment for so long—from 300 to 600 years, according to optimistic estimates. According to Saier, however, “Durability of plastic ensures that wherever it is, it does not go away. The persistence
of this debris was recently illustrated by accounts that plastic swallowed by an albatross had originated from a plane shot down 60 years previously some 9,600 km away.”

Research shows us that the solution to marine plastic goes further than avid recycling or refusing to litter, because the heart of the problem is a society built on disposable, single-use plastic. “We need to kick the plastic habit. Plastics are great for a lot of things: computers, hospital equipment, and safety gear. But plastic is a bad idea for single-use disposable products, like bags and straws,” says Eriksen.

Be an activist

Individuals can easily reduce the amount of plastic they contribute.

Avoid single-use plastic
Wilhelmson urges consumers to actively refuse single-use plastic. She champions small actions
for making a huge difference.

Try to avoid the plastic disposable options of these everyday products, and instead opt for reusable versions:

  • cutlery, plates, and drinking straws
  • water and pop bottles
  • coffee cups, lids, and stir sticks
  • feminine hygiene products
  • diapers
  • shopping bags (including those used for produce and bulk)
  • egg cartons
  • food storage wraps and containers
  • pens
  • razors and shaving products

Disposable options of these products are relatively new—generations ago, people made do with other materials that were friendlier on the earth, such as ?paper, wood, metal, glass, or cloth. Thankfully, more and more reusable options are available today at many natural health retailers.

When options are not available, Saier urges consumers to choose products made from recycled plastics—and always recycle them.

Place pressure on companies
Wilhelmson suggests bringing plastic packaging back to the store to send the companies the message that consumers don’t want unnecessary plastic waste. She says, “As consumers, we’re very powerful, but we don’t often realize it. When consumers demand change and companies see an economic impact, they will change.”

Eriksen agrees that pressure needs to be placed on companies, but adds, “The plastic bag industry won’t stop on its own.” That’s where government legislation comes in.

Place pressure on the government
Wilhelmson believes that “the government has a very linear view of the world—if it’s bad for industry, they won’t support it … They have yet to understand that there’s no economic health without environmental health.”

However, she recommends putting pressure on the government at a municipal level: “They’re generally closer to the people and have more innovative solutions.” Demanding plastic bag bans is one example of municipal pressure.

According to Mark Johnson, spokesperson for Environment Canada, the Canadian government is engaging in many ongoing efforts to stop plastic marine debris. For instance, “In October 2009, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) approved the Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and the Canada-wide Strategy for Sustainable Packaging.” In these programs, companies take into account, and are responsible for, the entire life cycle of a product.

Wear natural clothing
A recent study uncovered a scary truth about some of our favourite fashion statements: microplastic can come off synthetic fabrics in the wash, therefore contributing to marine debris. Wearing clothing made from natural fibres may solve this problem. Good choices include cotton (organic is best), wool, bamboo, and hemp.

Get active!
Fisheries and Oceans Canada encourages beach cleanups as one common and effective way for small groups of citizens to get involved. It recommends contacting Stewardship Canada (stewardshipcanada.ca) for more information.

The debate continues about the role of governments, companies, and citizens in the fight against marine plastic pollution. One thing, however, is clear: we all have contributed to this problem, and we all have a responsibility to make things better.


Biodegradable plastic to the rescue?

Biodegradable plastic products, such as those made from corn, are becoming more popular, but they may not be the answer to marine debris. “We have to be careful about what biodegradable means. Biodegradable does not necessarily mean good, safe, nontoxic,” says Wilhelmson. “Plus, if it’s corn plastic, it raises the questions of raising food crops for products.”

Eriksen adds that corn plastic is only biodegradable when shredded to increase its surface area and left in a warm, wet, microbe-rich environment. This doesn’t occur in landfills or the oceans. Additionally, biodegradable plastics don’t stop the cycle
of producing consumer products to be thrown away.

The verdict? “Overall, [using biodegradable plastic products] is not a very helpful solution, and it’s extremely complicated,” says Wilhelmson.

Get involved

Saier encourages citizens to “become a member of a group that creates awareness for plastic pollution and finds solutions to effectively reduce harmful plastic.”

Hook up with one of these activist organizations for resources, campaigns, and a support network:

Where in the world?

There are five major ocean gyres, and each one accumulates plastic waste:

  1. 1. North Pacific Gyre
  2. 2. South Pacific Gyre
  3. 3. North Atlantic Gyre
  4. 4. South Atlantic Gyre
  5. 5. Indian Ocean Gyre

The gyres are fluid systems that shift and move constantly; therefore, it’s very difficult to measure the exact sizes of each of the gyres. However, some estimates have been made. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the North Pacific Gyre is “roughly estimated to be approximately 7 to 9 million square miles … equivalent to approximately three times the area of the continental United States.”

Not pretty

Single-use plastic can lurk right under our noses—literally. The exfoliating beads in certain scrubs and face or body washes contain plastic, which ends up in the oceans after it’s rinsed away. These plastic pieces are so small they can be ingested by creatures at the very bottom of the food chain, such as plankton.

Choose natural scrubs and washes that use oatmeal, apricot seed, or walnut husk as exfoliating beads.

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