Plastics in the Ocean, by julia hill
Starting in the 1970s, use of plastics worldwide has increased exponentially and as our use of these products has grown so too has the need to deal with the subsequent waste. Single-use disposable plastics are the main culprits in this widespread issue. From the straws we use in our drinks to the wrapping on items at the grocery, these products are a common part of modern society and so the plastic waste builds. Whether carried downstream through our rivers or dumped directly in the ocean from vessels, billions of pounds of plastic are added to the world’s oceans each year. And though our oceans are vast, the addition of this many plastics is having a detrimental effect on the environment and all life that depends upon it.
How plastics get into oceans
The most common way plastics are carried to the oceans is through rivers. A recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that much of the world’s plastic marine waste can be traced to 10 major rivers in developing countries throughout Africa and Asia. Waste management is a key consideration as under-developed and overloaded sewer and disposal systems bring plastics into waterways. Once carried downstream and introduced to the marine environment, plastic items can be spread vast distances by wind and currents where they may collect in large rubbish heaps or disperse throughout the water table.
Impacts on ecosystems
There are several ways that plastics have a negative impact on marine ecosystems. Ingestion of plastics exposes marine animals to toxic chemicals that can lead to stomach and liver abnormalities. Equally sinister are the gut blockages that cause internal damage and even death. Larger plastic waste causes entanglements that lead to a slow death for marine animals such as whales, sea lions, and sharks. Unfortunately, once plastics reach the ocean, they become a permanent fixture of the marine environment as they do not quickly degrade and are not easily retrieved.
How we can help
Though widespread, it is possible to lessen the introduction and negative effects of plastics in the ocean. If more care is taken with waste management, especially near waterways, and single-use plastics are used more sparingly and recycled when possible, then the impact of plastics on our oceans can decrease considerably. Organizations like The Plastic Bank are using innovative solutions to address these issues and enact positive change at local, national, and global levels. There are also ways that we as individuals can make a difference whether by participating in beach cleanups or being more mindful about waste disposal in our communities. Starting on the ground, we can work to ensure these plastics never have a chance to reach our oceans in the first place.