Who among my fellow ’60-somethings’ doesn’t remember the scene in The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman, the newly-minted college grad, is given a single word of advice by a middle-aged businessman: “plastics.” Plastics, according to the older man, were the wave of the future and the route to the young man’s career success.
Well, in a sense, Hoffman’s would-be mentor was right. Since The Graduate was filmed, back in 1967, the production of plastics has grown exponentially. In 1967, fewer than 19 million metric tons of plastic were produced worldwide, but now, global production was a whopping 380 million metric tons! and raising every year.
Plastics are everywhere–single-use shopping bags, packaging for food and a zillion other products, toys, home building materials, car parts, medical supplies. The list goes on and on.
Since the very first plastics were developed more than 100 years ago, advances in chemical technology have led to an explosion of forms and uses. Mass production of plastics began in the 1940s and production has been accelerating ever since. About half of the more than eight billion metric tons of plastic that have been produced worldwide were made in just the last 13 years.
Derived from petrochemicals like oil and coal, plastic gets its name from the adjective ‘plastic,’ meaning ‘malleable.’ This malleability, or plasticity, makes possible a huge variety of shapes and characteristics that can fulfill a vast array of purposes.
How Plastic Gets in the Ocean
Plastics have indeed proved useful in myriad ways. But here’s the kicker. Plastic doesn’t go away. Most of the plastic ever made is still with us.
We may discard a plastic cup or straw, but that plastic waste has great staying power. Unlike natural materials that decompose, plastic endures virtually forever. The chemical composition of most plastics remains unchanged, even as the object may break into pieces so small they cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Given the persistence of plastics in the environment, combined with the gargantuan quantities of plastic produced every year, plastics pose a huge problem.
You see, proper disposal of these plastics is important, but it is not enough. Even if we all dispose of our trash properly, not all of it can be confined to landfills. Because plastic is so light, it floats on water and is easily carried by the wind. Plastics blow away from uncovered trash heaps, from streets and trash cans. Rain washes plastic trash from the ground into storm drains and sewers, on into streams, rivers, and eventually into the ocean.
In fact, 80% of the world’s marine pollution comes from land-based sources, and plastic accounts for 65-90% of it, according to the UN Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution.
How Much Plastic Ends up in the Ocean Every Year
Every year 8 million metric tons of plastic are added to our oceans. This is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world! Swirled by ocean currents, plastics and other debris accumulate at the center of major ocean vortices, where they form large and growing masses of floating debris.
One such vortex is the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. It is an area the size of Texas, located in the northern Pacific Ocean. This giant concentration of trash consists mostly of microscopic plastic particles and other debris. Pieces of plastic that have made their way into the Pacific Ocean are drawn into the Patch by the prevailing ocean currents.
As these plastics fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, some release toxins into the seawater. Sea creatures, from the largest to the smallest, are swallowing this seawater soup filled with toxic chemicals from plastic fragmenting, explains Maziar Movassaghi, former Director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. And we humans eat fish that have eaten fish that have eaten toxin-saturated plastics.
Some of the land-based plastics that are carried into the ocean are spun out again by sea currents, and they wind up back on land, but not the land where they originated.
The remote Midway Atoll, for example, north of Hawaii and midway between North America and Asia, receives massive quantities of plastic debris every day. Midway beaches are covered with this debris, and millions of very small plastic particles litter the beaches. In fact, these tiny plastic particles can be found on beaches the world over. Someone has given them the poignant name ‘mermaid’s tears.’
How Plastic Affects the Ocean Life
Plastics in the environment are taking a huge toll on wildlife. Midway, for example, is littered with thousands of bird corpses. And as these corpses decompose, piles of colorful plastics remain where stomachs once were. Of 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses inhabiting Midway, all have plastic in their digestive system, scientists have discovered. And for one-third of the chicks, plastic blockages proves deadly. Witnesses report observing shorebirds eating pieces of colorful plastic on the beach.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals annually, as well as millions of birds and fishes. And scientists estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish, by weight, in our oceans.
Clearly, there is a need to stem this plastic tide that is transforming our oceans.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO REDUCE PLASTIC?
As individuals and as citizens of our state and nation, we can all take steps to address the serious problem of plastics in our oceans. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Don’t accept plastic bags offered by store clerks; bring your own reusable bags instead.
- Pick up litter. There’s more at stake than a clean landscape. You are helping keep plastics and other trash out of our oceans.
- Say no to plastic straws in restaurants; they’re not necessary.
- Don’t buy or accept bottled water. A small investment in a metal water bottle will keep some plastic out of the environment and save you money at the same time.
- Participate in clean-ups. Many groups organize clean-up days to get trash out of a local stream or river or off a nearby beach.
- Call on your state legislators to follow the example of Hawaii and California, states that have banned single use plastic bags in many kinds of stores.
- Urge your Representative and Senators to work for federal legislation to address heavily littered items like plastic bags, food containers, and beverage bottles through a ban or fee. And call on these lawmakers to establish a federal deposit/refund system for single use plastic bags and beverage bottles
- Join forces with individuals, groups, businesses, and governments that are working to curtail the production of plastic, especially single-use plastics.