World Environment Day is June 5th, and this year's focus is the crisis of plastic pollution. The hard truth is that millions of tons of plastics are floating in our seas, as well as in our streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. From shopping bags to food containers, from straws to disposable water bottles, the huge amount of plastics in our waters and on our coastlines is detrimental to our environment, wildlife and humans. And, as the list above illustrates, plastic pollution is very much a food-related issue.
The Problem of Plastic Pollution
One study calculated that an incredible 275 million metric tons of plastic waste was produced in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with estimates of 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of that total plastic eventually finding its way into the ocean. The US is the only wealthy country - at number 20 - to rank in the world's top 20 plastic-pollution generating countries. In their 2017 annual cleanup of US beaches, environmental nonprofit, Ocean Conservancy, collected over 3.1 million pounds of trash. Plastic items, like bottle caps and bags, made up five of the top 10 most polluted materials that they found.
Plastic can even make its way into the popular fish that people eat, like tuna and swordfish. The plastic in these fish can make its way up the food chain into the fish we humans eat.
A portion of our plastic pollution flows down coastal waterways and into the ocean where some of it will feed the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the soup of plastic bits and other waste materials that wind up in the water column in the North Pacific. Although most of this debris isn't visible, the Garbage patch can range to the size of Texas and is one of five major ocean gyres - or large circulating ocean currents often moved by wind - that catch and breaks down plastic. Much of our plastic debris also falls below the surface and remains on the seafloor.
All this plastic waste has dramatic real-world consequences. Take for instance the depressing discovery of the sperm whale that washed up on the Mediterranean coast of Spain in early 2018. A necropsy by scientists showed that the unfortunate whale's stomach and intestines were choked with 64 pounds of indigestible plastic bags, plastic fishing nets and other marine debris. "The presence of plastics in the seas and oceans is one of the greatest threats to the conservation of wildlife throughout the world," said a statement issued by Consuelo Rosauro, environmental director of Spain's Murcia region.
This isn't an isolated event. Plastic waste - and the microplastic fragments created as larger plastic materials wear down over time - are very damaging to fish, shellfish, sea birds, sea mammals and other aquatic species that mistakenly eat it. Plastic can even make its way into the popular fish that people eat, like tuna and swordfish. Microplastics were detected in 73 percent of deep-sea feeder fish caught in the Northwest Atlantic. The plastic in these fish can make its way up the food chain into the fish we humans eat.
Preventing Plastic Pollution
Photo by Denise Hoffmeister on Unsplash.
However, all hope is not lost. Humans can prevent plastic pollution. A newly released study found a 30 percent reduction of plastic bag waste in the waters offshore the United Kingdom. Based on 25 years of data acquired by trawling the seafloors of the North Sea and Celtic Sea, the UK's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) only observed declines in plastic bags, which have been a target for government regulation in the UK. Across England, fees on plastic grocery bags have decreased their use by 80 percent and researchers suggest that the reduction scheme is successfully working.
The paper's principal author, Thomas Maes, Marine Litter Scientist at the CEFAS said:
It is encouraging to see that efforts by all of society, whether the public, industry, NGOs or government to reduce plastic bags are having an effect. We observed sharp declines in the percentage of plastic bags as captured by fishing nets trawling the seafloor around the UK compared to 2010 and this research suggests that by working together we can reduce, reuse and recycle to tackle the marine litter problem.
This promising outcome points the way to large-scale solutions to reduce plastic pollution. Focused attention followed by action is the only way that proves effective, from national governments all the way down to our personal decisions made at home. On the governmental end, laws that put deposits on plastic drink bottles and that prohibit the use of certain types of food packing could reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce. There is also more that you can do at an individual level. Here are a few tips from Surfrider Foundation to get started:
- Carry reusable utensils (including straws) in your bag, purse, backpack or car to use for lunch, take-out or food on-the-go.
- Replace common, "disposable" plastics such as sandwich bags and one-use juice cartons with reusable lunch gear, like a lunch bag and thermos.
- Grab your mug to fill up when you need your coffee or smoothie fix. This reduces plastic cups, lids and straws.
- Pack your cloth shopping bags (or reuse other plastic ones) and don't forget your reusable bottles.
Get more tips to keep water clean from Surfrider Foundation's Rise Above Plastics Campaign.
How much plastic do you use (and discard)? Find out with the Earth Day Network's Plastic Consumption Calculator.