A Sea of Plastic

David Ayer and Valeria Merino

So, you bought a six-pack of soda, and you took off the plastic ring that holds the bottles together and put it on your garbage bin, but what happens next? Is it recycled? Does it end up in a landfill? Does it stay there? All of these questions likely have drastically different answers depending on where you live. And depending on the answers to these questions, this lone plastic ring could have a host of impacts on the marine organisms that inhabit the oceans around the world.

Plastic items can make their way to the ocean in a vast number of ways. Some plastic items are simply thrown away in open spaces or streets and carried through storm drains and waterways into the ocean. Other items may fall out of garbage trucks or may be dumped into improperly managed landfills, some of which spill directly into the ocean. Hundreds of small cities and towns do not have any waste management infrastructure, and people are forced to dump their waste in open spaces.

You may ask what’s wrong with a small piece of plastic ending up in the giant ocean. Well, the direct result of this poor management is the accumulation of millions and millions of tons of plastic floating around the world’s oceans. If nothing changes, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish (by weight). This plastic has very damaging effects on the fish and other organisms that call the ocean home. That six-pack ring you threw away can go on to harm sea creatures in several different ways.

Let’s say that six-pack ring you threw away made its way into the ocean. A baby sea turtle swims through one of the holes but doesn’t make it all the way through; now it has a six-pack ring wrapped around its body. The baby sea turtle continues to grow, but the plastic ring stays the same size. The turtle’s growth is stunted, and its shell cannot fully form in the middle. It is extremely unlikely this turtle will make it to adulthood. This sort of tragedy repeats itself all the time.

Now let’s say you just bought lunch. It came in a single-use plastic bag, which you quickly threw into the nearest trash can along the sidewalk. Unfortunately, the can was already full, and your bag blows out of the can and into the storm drain, where it makes its way to the ocean. Once floating freely in the water, the plastic bag you used for a total of five minutes will remain for many years, and will break into smaller and smaller pieces. The kicker is, it looks like a jellyfish. This bag is consumed by a misled sea lion and causes blockages in his digestive system, making it difficult, if not impossible, to consume regular, healthy food. Recently, a whale that had to be put down in Norway was discovered to have 30 plastic bags in its stomach.

Finally, think of the polyester shirt you are wearing. Every time that shirt gets washed, it releases microscopic plastic fibers into the water. That water eventually makes its way to a river and then to the ocean, along with the plastic fibers that are too small to be filtered out at the water treatment plant. As fish in the ocean bring water in through their gills to breath, they simultaneously absorb microscopic plastic particles. Those particles will stay in fish and be passed on to whatever eventually eats it, potentially a human.

The solution to all of these problems is not a simple one. Consuming fewer plastics is a valuable and important step. All of us must reduce our consumption simply because we cannot even manage the waste we generate now.

On the other hand, we must demand that governments and local authorities do their jobs. The real culprit of the growing plastic pollution crisis is insufficient waste management infrastructure. We need to push our governments to do much better and to do so soon. Plastic waste should never end up in the ocean.

Turtles and seagulls never planned on living in the world’s largest landfill. We do not want to eat fish that have been contaminated by plastics and the chemicals that are used to make them. We owe it to future generations to protect the ocean and the organisms that call it home. If you live in an area with insufficient waste management, it is up to you to push for a better system, and the oceans will thank you. Finally, please do not throw plastics anywhere other than your plastic bin. You do not want to be responsible for the harm that plastic causes in the oceans and you don’t want it coming back to your home as part of your next meal!