The ocean has always inspired awe among humanity.
When you stand on a beach and look out, the expanse of water seems to be limitless. It’s easy to see why ancient sailors believed in sea monsters and mermaids.
Unfortunately, as vast as the ocean is, it is not large enough or deep enough to be immune from the effects of human carelessness. As the New York Times reported on Sunday, the sea has been inundated with our trash-a problem that keeps growing every year, thanks to the massive amounts of plastic that we buy, use and throw away every year. If there are sea monsters and mermaids somewhere in the depths, they are ticked off!
The problem is not limited to the coastline or to populated areas. Ocean currents carry our garbage far beyond sight of land. Plastic trash dumped in Asia ends up in Alaska, and a plastic soda bottle from California can end up on a remote tropical island. When the currents converge, large amounts of trash from all over the world can be concentrated into one area. One example of this phenomenon is the North Central Pacific Gyre, an area that has basically become one huge marine garbage dump. To see a video that illustrates the problem, click here.
Of course, humans dump all kinds of trash, but plastic is the chief cause of concern.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, plastic is not biodegradable. Instead of breaking down, plastic in the ocean is simply torn into smaller and smaller pieces. Why is this such a big problem? Plastic can resemble a variety of different marine food sources-everything from the jellyfish beloved by sea turtles to the plankton eaten by fish to the small sea creatures eaten by birds. Oceanographer Charles Moore compared the amount of plastic and plankton in the North Central Pacific Gyre and found that there was 6 times the amount of plastic as there was of plankton!
Obviously, plastic is not a part of “this nutritious breakfast” for any living creature. Consuming large amounts of plastic can cause malnutrition, intestinal blockages, and death. Not all chicks that are fed plastic die from it (or the albatross would be extinct), but in the case the chick ate a sharp piece of plastic that punctured its intestines.
Like all the other environmental problems we create, this issue also has the potential to harm humans as well. Plastics absorb other pollutants such as DDT, PCB’s, and dioxin. These poisons accumulate in living tissue over time, reaching their highest concentrations in the tissues of top predators…like us. Fish and chips, anyone?
What Can You Do?
Cleaning up the ocean is going to be difficult because of the vast amount of territory involved and the scope of the problem. It’s going to be especially difficult to get all the tiny, plankton-like plastic particles.
In the meantime, however, we can all do our part to try to keep the problem from getting worse. Here’s how:
- Avoid plastic grocery bags. Ideally, use reusable bags instead, but if that’s not an option at least ask for paper instead of plastic.
- Choose products with minimal packaging. Remember, you aren’t buying the package.
- Avoid Styrofoam packing peanuts, please. Nobody likes them. They are annoying, get everywhere, and shredded newspaper does an equally good job of cushioning.
- Don’t fall for the bottled water scam… there is nothing wrong with tap water. Get a reusable water bottle-you can find cheap straw-like filter attachments if you are concerned about water safety and quality.
- Recycle your used plastics whenever possible.
- Please, please, don’t litter!