Our oceans cover 70 percent of the planet’s surface, contain 97 percent of the water on earth, and are home to an extremely sensitive and bio-diverse aquatic ecosystem, one consisting of a range of life forms, from algae, seaweed, and plankton to predator fish, mammals, and sea birds. And there is a rich food chain in-between.
These underwater habitats provide every nation on earth with a wealth of resources, such as oxygen, food, energy, medicines, recreation, and a deep spirituality.
Sadly though, due to accidental, negligent, and deliberate human activity, our oceans are under a constant assault from pollutants like animal and human waste, toxic chemicals, metals, and oils, and importantly, plastics.
Plastic has become the most useful and widely-used material ever created. Scientists and engineers specifically made plastics to take any shape, to be hard as rock or soft as fur, and to resist decomposition.
About nine million tons of plastic waste make their way into the oceans each year. They follow the currents of all five oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Southern), until they come to “dead zones”, or “gyres.” In the Pacific ocean alone, plastic waste has created a gyre the size of Texas, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it is estimated that 170,000 tons of plastic float in its currents.
Along with demeaning the very spirituality and happiness of those who work and play on, in, and near our oceans, this bombardment of plastic waste creates a host of problems for every link in the food chain.
Many of our already-endangered seabirds, fish, and mammals (such as the Brown Pelican, enre, osprey, albatross, sea turtle, marine otter, the gray and humpback whales, and whooping cranes) get tangled in the plastic nets, bags, and packaging material. They misidentify this flotsam as food which, after ingesting, blocks their digestive tracts. Then they die of starvation.
As the plastics degrade from the effects of sun, wind, and waves, they release toxins called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that adversely affect algae, which in turn adversely affects the zooplankton that feeds on them, which in turn adversely affects the fish that feed on the zooplankton, and so on. These large plastics also become tiny micro-plastics that are nearly impossible to remove from the oceans or from animals’ bodies.
The point source of this solid waste are the very companies that design, produce, and sell these non-biodegradable plastics. As businesses, their only objective is the pursuit of short term profits, which leads them to rely on the most cost-effective—but least healthy—modes of production and disposal. Only when the cost of clean-up and disposal of this plastic waste is added to the cost of production (through fines and taxes and litigation) will these companies realize that engineering more environmentally friendly plastics is also more economical.
The social and economic landscapes that lead to progressive change can be achieved with the collective support of organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, which sues corporate polluters, and the local, state, and federal agencies that permit them to pollute.
The Ocean Conservancy, Greenpeace, the Water Environment Federation, the 5 Gyres Institute, Save the Bay, and the USI School of Oceanography all educate, research, and fight this assault on our oceans.
Supporting scientists and engineers to develop plastics that are bio- and photo-degradable must be a priority. And crowdfunding innovative young thinkers like The Ocean Cleanup, and their 62-mile “Plastic Catcher” will also be critical.
Most importantly, we must continue to read, learn, and understand as much as we can about how our everyday decisions and activities negatively affect our oceans and planet. And we must make changes in how we live. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Remove—and Rethink.