Over the last few years I have traveled to beaches in the Cayman Islands, England, Nicaragua, Cancun, Miami, and now Brazil. Despite being miles apart these beaches have a common theme…..Plastic Pollution! Plastic pollution accounting for 60-80% of marine litter that totals approximately 14 billion pounds each year. Due to ocean gyres, trash will accumulate in massive islands with an example of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch estimated to range in size from 700,000 square kilometers to more than 15,000,000 square kilometers.
The primary problem with plastic pollution is that most is not biodegradable which means no natural process can break it down. Instead, plastics degrade by photodegradation. This means the absorption of photons, typically the wavelengths found in sunlight result in molecular break-down. A plastic milk jug in the ocean will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces without breaking into simpler compounds; which is estimated to take 1 million years. Consequently, the ocean is accumulating plastic which breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic called mermaid tears or nurdles.
Nurdles can get sucked up by filter feeders, or eaten by other marine life which can potentially be life threatening. In addition, nurdles can soak up toxic chemicals that can threaten an entire food chain. The nudles ‘mop up’ chemicals or poisons that are diffuse in the water, which makes them highly concentrated and the nudles potentially toxic. Larger plastics like shopping bags can also be mistaken as a typical food source and can be consumed by fish, marine mammals and birds. In total, more than a million birds and marine animals die each year from consuming or becoming caught in plastic and other debris.
Below are some pictures taken by a friend who was working in the Philippines. The pictures are of a Leatherback turtle that was found dead on the beach. An autopsy of the turtle found two plastic bags: one in the esophagus and one in the stomach which are believed to have caused the turtles death. Plastic bags can easily be mistaken as jellyfish as highlighted by the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtle picture shown below.
What can we do about the plastics problem?
International action by organizations such as the UN Environmental Program are helping to establishing plans to curb plastic pollution. Plastic producers are also being held more accountable for recovering and recycling their product after it is used. However, we can also help with the plastic pollution problem by cutting down plastic consumption in our daily lives. We can bring our own bag to the store, choose reusable items wherever possible and try to purchase items that have recycled plastic. If you are anything like me you probably own 20 reusable bags as you end up forgetting them when you go shopping. However, leaving them by your shopping list or keeping one by your front door will hopefully remind you to take them with you. Also, small changes like saying no to a plastic straw when you are out reduce plastic pollution. You can also make a commitment to recycling and can decide to take responsibility for your waste and the impact it has on the environment. If it is in the home, the workplace or an organization set tangible goals to reduce plastic waste generation. Finally, clean-up a beach! Whether you organize a beach clean-up at your local beach or you just wonder along and collect what you see it all helps to reduce the plastic pollution problem.