As a society, we have become dependent on plastic for nearly every part of our lives. Almost everything we buy, from food to electronics, comes packaged in it.  Many people often use plastic utensils, plates, and cups.  Our medications come in plastic bottles.  We use plastic bags to carry our groceries.  The list goes on and on.  While plastic does have great benefits, its overuse is causing a major environmental concern, especially for marine life.

the problem with plastic

large amount of plastic trash on a beach along the edge of the oceanPlastic pollution is one of the greatest threats to our oceans.  Because it is so lightweight, it can easily be blown into waterways.  The amount that makes its way into oceans is continuing to increase at alarming rates.  There is estimated to be nearly 600 million pounds of plastic waste currently in oceans.  This amount is expected to increase by more than 200% over the next decade if action is not taken.  The United States was responsible for approximately 165 pounds of plastic debris ending up in oceans in 2010.  China is the worst offender with approximately 5,000 pounds in 2010.

Plastic can take up to 600 years to decompose.  Some plastics decay much faster, but they release toxic chemicals, including styrene trimer and bisphenol A, in the process.  Bisphenol A attacks animals’ reproductive systems, causing their birth rates to drop significantly.  Styrene is a suspected carcinogen, which can have an adverse effect on the wildlife that ingests it as well as humans or other predators that eat those animals.

Many animals accidentally consume this garbage.  Sometimes the broken down pieces are so small, they are swallowed accidentally.  Other times, animals mistake plastic waste as food.  For example, plastic bags and balloons resemble jellyfish, which are a major food source for leatherback sea turtles (Demochelys coriacea), ocean sunfish (Mola mola), and Atlantic Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus).  Therefore, these animals frequently eat the bags and balloons, and end up dying of intestinal obstruction, stomach punctures, choking, starvation, or toxicity.  As their numbers are dropping, the jellyfish population is getting out of control.  The jellyfish populations have become so dense in some areas that beaches are no longer considered safe for swimming.

Seabirds frequently eat pieces of plastic they mistake as food.  One third of all seabird species feed on plastic accidentally.  They also feed these items to their young, causing their chick mortality rates to rise drastically.  Up to 95% of some populations of albatross have been found to have plastic in their stomachs and intestines.

adult sea turtle trapped in large fishing netEntanglement is also a huge problem being caused by plastic waste.  Over 200 species are impacted by entanglement risk.  In the United States, seals and turtles are the most commonly affected.  The biggest culprits for entanglement are fishing gear, including fishing line and nets, and 6-pack rings.  These materials get tangled around animals’ necks causing asphyxiation.  Fishing line can also get caught around limbs and other body parts, resulting in amputation and infection.

The recent trend of plastic microbeads being added to skincare products and toothpaste is also causing problems.  These beads are often added to face and body washes to exfoliate the skin, and to toothpastes to make them more visually appealing.  Because of their intended use, the tiny beads get washed down drains and, because of their size, are not filtered out at water treatment facilities and enter our oceans.  Also because of their size, nearly all marine animals are at risk for accidentally ingesting these products.

what can we do?

You do not have to give up plastic to prevent this distress to marine animals.  Reducing the amount you use and disposing of it properly are important steps to take to help.  Buy products packaged in glass instead of plastic when possible.  Use reusable flatware and dishes when possible instead of disposable plastic alternatives.  Do not use washes or toothpastes that contain plastic microbeads.  If you want an exfoliating product, look for products that contain natural exfoliants, such as sea salt or apricot seeds.  Use reusable grocery bags as much as possible, and reuse plastic ones when you do get them.  They can be used to line small trash cans, to clean litterboxes and pick up dog poop on walks, and as single-use shower caps.  If you do have to throw them away empty, make sure to tie them into a knot first to minimize the likelihood they will blow away.  Also, be careful to never let balloons out into the atmosphere.  Most plastic items can be recycled once they have been used, and doing so is very easy and very beneficial.  If you fish, cut the line into small pieces before throwing it away so, even if it does blow into the ocean from the landfill, it at least cannot wrap around an animal’s body.  It is always important to dispose of trash properly and not litter, but it is especially important with plastic.

 

 

 

Sources

Sample, Ian. (2015, February 12). Coastal communities dumping 8m tonnes of plastic in oceans every year. The Guardian. Accessed May 4, 2015 from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/12/coastal-communities-dumping-8m-tonnes-of-plastic-in-oceans-every-year.

Time it takes for garbage to decompose in the environment. New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Accessed May 4, 2015 from http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/wmb/coastal/trash/documents/marine_debris.pdf.

Barry, Carolyn. (2009, August 20). Plastic breaks down in the ocean, after all- and fast. National Geographic. Accessed May 5, 2015 from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/08/090820-plastic-decomposes-oceans-seas.html.

Alonso, Nathalie. What marine life eats jellyfish? Mom.me. Accessed on May 6, 2015 from http://animals.mom.me/marine-life-eats-jellyfish-5596.html.

(2014, June 17). Plastics don’t disappear, but they do end up in seabirds’ bellies. NPR. Accessed May 6, 2015 from http://www.npr.org/2014/06/17/322959714/plastics-dont-disappear-but-they-do-end-up-in-sea-birds-bellies.

(2014, August 8). What we know about entanglement and ingestion. NOAA. Accessed May 6, 2015 from https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/what-we-know-about-entanglement-and-ingestion.

Plastic shopping bags & environmental impact. Reuse This Bag. Accessed October 20, 2015 from http://www.reusethisbag.com/articles/plastic-shopping-bags-environmental-impact.php.