In mid-February this year, the Church of England made the news by recommending that their parishioners give up plastic for Lent. This religious season is one of the most important time for many of the world’s Christians and Catholics and many make sacrifices during this time of the year. Some give up chocolate, others will stop checking and updating social media, and now, there are more than a few who have given up using plastic for the month.
The reason behind giving up plastic, other than for Lent, comes out of a deep concern for the environment and our oceans. Large patches of floating plastic have been found in the Pacific Ocean; there’s even one patch larger than Mexico. Within the Pacific Ocean, there are two massive plastic patches that are collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This patch, along with many other layers of plastic around the world, are smothering the oceans and the marine life that call them home. As bad as things are today, the amount of plastic in our oceans are currently predicted to triple within a decade.
This large amount of plastic in the ocean plays a significantly negative role on the ecosystem and all the animals that live in or around the ocean. Over 200 different animal species have been eating plastic and nearly every kind of seabird on earth is eating plastic. There was one study that found out why so many seabird eat plastic: it apparently smells similar to food.
- When seabirds smell plastic in the ocean, they think it’s time to eat by Sean Greene, The Los Angeles Times
It’s not just birds that are impacted by the large amounts of plastic in the ocean. Anchovies even eat plastic for the same reason birds do: it smells like prey! There was, as another sad example, a dead turtle found in Perth, Australia in the summer of 2017 and its stomach and intestines were stuffed with plastic trash. A study published in early 2016 found that microplastics affect oyster reproduction, as the oysters who consume microplastics with their food spend most of their energy dealing with the plastic in their digestive systems and had less energy for reproduction.
- Choking the Oceans with Plastic by Charles J. Moore, New York Times
And the animals who don’t directly eat the plastic are impacted by the large amounts of this substance ending up in the oceans. Zooplankton, like many seabirds and anchovies, are eating plastic and zooplankton are often eventually eaten by larger animals. Many scientists are worried about all the direct and indirect ways that plastic affects marine animals, including how eating zooplankton with plastic impact larger animals.
- See How It Feels to Be an Ocean Animal Stuck in a Plastic Bag (Video from National Geographic)
Plastic has other impacts on the ocean and marine animals other than being consumed. Researchers up in B.C., for example, found that there are toxic metals being leeched into the ocean from plastic left on beaches and there are even plastic particles found within bottled water. Plus, there are many animals that get caught in plastic on a regular basis and end up dying. Research has found that nine out of ten turtles that are caught in debris sadly die because they’re not able to get free.
It can be hard to imagine the affects that all this plastic has on the oceans and marine animals. If you google the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you can see just some of the photos that have been taken but there are many other ways to see just how much plastic is in the oceans today. I definitely recommend watching the film ‘Plastic Paradise’, which takes a look at the history of the production of plastic and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
- Douglas Coupland, Ocean Wise team up for plastics exhibition at Vancouver Aquarium by Harrison Mooney, Vancouver Sun
Chris Jordan, a Seattle photographer, started taking photos of decaying birds with stomachs full of plastic and the project is an inescapable reminder of the impact that plastic has. As another example, Justin Hofman snapped a photo of a seahorse carrying a q-tip late last summer. And as yet another example, Rich Horner went for a dive off the coast of Bali recently and recorded the amount of plastic he had to swim through.
There are many ways to help decrease the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean. Here are just a few:
- The first is simple and obvious: decrease the amount of plastic that you use in everyday life.
- Use reusable coffee/tea mugs instead of the disposable cups that many coffee shops provide.
- Use reusable bags at grocery stores instead of the paper or plastic bags! It took me a long time to remember to bring reusable bags when I went to the store but it’s possible to pick up the habit.
- Stop using plastic straws. There are many companies that have started making and selling reusable metal straws if you use straws on a regular basis!
- Use a reusable water bottle instead of buying plastic ones at the store or at a vending machine.
- The second way is to advocate for others to stop using so much plastic and to encourage businesses to stop using to go containers made of plastic and Styrofoam. Many businesses in Bellingham, as an example, have started using to go containers and utensils made of compostable material.
- The third option is related to the second: advocate for local governments to adopt bans on plastic bags and other plastic materials that end up in the ocean.
- For example, the City Council of Bellingham, WA approved a city wide ban on plastic bags in grocery stores in July of 2011 and the ban took effect in August of 2012.
The amount of plastic within our oceans is one of the worst ways that humanity has impacted the earth. The ecosystems are being suffocated by the large amounts of plastic and marine animals are dying due to plastic consumption. It’ll take time to pick up new habits but there are ways in which we as individuals can decrease the amount of plastic we regularly throw away! In addition to slowing down the effects of climate change, the fate of our oceans, the marine animals that call the oceans home, and our own future depend on us making drastic changes in the amount of plastic we produce, consume, and throw away.