Our Plastic Ocean
The ocean, which provides sustenance and economic stability to people all over the world, shelter to billions of marine organisms, and a beautiful recreation area to beach-goers, is becoming increasingly polluted by a man-made menace. This threat is an increasingly dire danger to marine life, especially seabirds. Scientists are trying to fight a predator which is globally dispersed, doubles in production every eleven years, and may never decompose: plastic. A countries’ population size and the quality of waste management systems are key to determining which contribute the most waste. The United States ranks within the top twenty countries in the world contributing to this pollution (Jambeck). While there has recently been an increase in movements to clean up existing plastic in the oceans, research suggests that the most effective way to avoid pollution is for humans to develop better waste management systems (Jambeck). Although cleanups are beneficial, I argue that preventative approaches such as better waste management and eco-friendly alternatives to plastic are our best bet to save our blue paradise and avoid suffering the toxic effects of plastic passed through the food chain.
Wildlife and the Food Chain: the Consequences
“Marine Debris” -National Geographic
“Toxins are passed through the food chain and could end up in your stomach.”
Plastic negatively affects wildlife through entanglement and ingestion. Because plastics don’t biodegrade, they brake up into tiny pieces that are consumed by fish and sea mammals. In a study published in 2015, plastic concentrations were recorded to be as high as 580,000 pieces per square kilometer of water (Wilcox). The particles are killing more than 100,000 sea turtles and birds a year (Andrews). Ingestion of the substance can cause gut blockage and/or organ damage due to toxins leeching into the organism’s body. Toxic chemicals absorbed by the body can also be transmitted to offspring and cause reproductive issues in the host. Even if ingested plastic doesn’t fully block the gut, it will reduce the space for nutritious food in the stomach, initiating a prolonged death by starvation. Also, when plastic is digested, pollutants are released into the consumer’s tissues. Diethylhexyl phthalate, contained in some plastics, is a toxic carcinogen. Health-bisphenol-A, along with phthalates are also contained in some plastics and can interfere with human hormonal function (Andrews). Toxins are passed through the food chain and could end up in your stomach. Scientists have used various studies to measure toxin exposure.
Seabirds: a Closer Look
“Albatross” -National Geographic
Using a literature review, oceanographic modeling, and ecological models, scientists have developed a way to predict future rates of plastic exposure for 186 seabird species. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to substantially increase by the year 2025 and 99.8% of birds are expected to consume debris by 2050 (Wilcox). Ingestion rates increase significantly with more exposure, larger body size, and a more recent study date (with a few outliers). The area that will be most affected by increasing rates is the area with the most seabird diversity, not simply the area with the highest concentration of plastic. The Southern Ocean, specifically the boundary in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, hosts the most diverse display of seabirds and will thus be most affected (Wilcox). There are limitations to this research considering that, in general, evidence for the impact of plastic on seabirds is still limited. Also, Ingestion levels may vary across the genus, or within a particular species of bird, not to mention that future predictions themselves are inherently uncertain. However, assuming the overall increasing trend of plastic concentration continues, the predictions of this research can be supported. Plastic pollutants, along with ecological and environmental changes due to climate change, over-fishing, and the introduction of invasive predators have resulted in the decline of half of all seabird species. Thankfully, scientists and everyday environmentally conscious persons can help prevent further decline through properly disposing of plastics and helping support cleanup efforts.
The Ocean Cleanup Project is an initiative to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch- a concentration of pollution, mostly plastic, located in the central North Pacific Ocean that is larger than the state of Texas (Krantz). The Project employs a reactionary approach to the issue, that is, cleaning up waste that has already accumulated in the water.
“Cleaning up in the middle is like mopping up a leaking tap without fixing the tap itself.” -Erik Van Sebille
Many leading scientists, however, such as PNAS author Erik Van Sebille, argue that “Cleaning up in the middle is like mopping up a leaking tap without fixing the tap itself.” Sebille adds, “It’s much better to do it as close to the source as possible, before it has a chance to interact with marine life.” Both the PNAS report and Jambeck’s study support the idea of more effective waste management as an effective way to combat the threat of plastic pollution. Recognizing that improving waste management infrastructure in developing countries will require substantial resources and time, the author encourages industrialized countries to take immediate action by reducing waste and curbing use and proliferation of single-use plastics.
Waves of Change
Eben Bayer, co-founder of a biomaterials company called Ecovative that developed a plant-based substitute for styrofoam, laments, “It is extremely hard to clean up any pollution once it occurs. Folks hear ‘Pacific Garbage Patch’ and think it’s some concentrated area. It actually stretches over hundreds of miles and is very diffuse. The material that is out there is certainly an issue, but the bigger problem is, what will our oceans looks like in 25 or 50 years if we continue like this? Our beaches will have plastic trash, not kelp, lining the edges, and our marine life, animals, and birds, will pay a heavy price.”
“…what will our oceans looks like in 25 or 50 years if we continue like this? Our beaches will have plastic trash, not kelp, lining the edges, and our marine life, animals, and birds, will pay a heavy price.” -Eben Bayer
This imagery is essential to the ocean cleanup movement if it is to continue gaining public support. Due to the removed locations of visible plastic concentrations, most people do not see the issue manifested and do not wish to contribute money to fix what they cannot see themselves being affected by. Raising awareness is therefor essential to avoiding catastrophic consequences of plastic-infested waters. In order to save the health of our water, marine life, and our own bodies, we need to take action. Stopping the problem at the source through better waste management is the most effective solution. By recycling, not littering, using more re-usable or renewable materials, and voting for candidates who support environmentally-friendly policies, you can help keep our waters and the world healthy.
Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebille, and Brita Denise Hardesty. [PNAS] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2 July 2015. Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/38/11899.
(found through Science Magazine article Nearly every seabird may be eating plastic by 2050 by Sid Perkins)
Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, et al. [AAAS] The American Association for the Advancement of Science. 13 February 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Available from: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768.full?ijkey=BXtBaPzbQgagE&keytype=ref&siteid=sci
Andrews, Gianna. “Plastics in the Ocean Affecting Human Health.” Case Studies. The National Association of Geoscience Teachers, 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 16 Feb. 2017. <http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/plastics.html>.
Krantz, Laura. “A Sea Of Plastic.” Popular Science. N.p., Sept.-Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Feb. 2017. <http://www.popsci.com/sea-plastic>.
Albatross. Digital image. Great Pacific Garbage Patch. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017. <http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/>.
Marine Debris. Digital image. Great Pacific Garbage Patch. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017. <http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/>.