Do you know how many pounds of trash enter the ocean each year? Each year, an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world’s ocean from coastal regions. That’s about equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash piled up on every foot of coastline on the planet. All that plastic is causing harm to the creatures that live in the ocean, from coral reefs smothered in bags, to turtles gagging on straws, to whales and seabirds that starve because their bellies are so jammed with bits of plastic that there’s no room for real food. (Natgeo) New research is emerging about the possible long term impacts of tiny pieces of plastic on the marine food chain.

About 40 percent of all plastic produced is used in packaging, and much of that is used only once and then thrown away. Less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled, though many countries and businesses are trying innovative solutions to increase that number. If plastic had been invented when the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, to North America and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks their plastic trash would likely still be around, four centuries later. (Keith) Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a shockingly 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never (Keith).

Ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat micro plastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across. For example in Thailand a small male pilot whale was found struggling, unable to swim or breathe, in a Thai canal near the Malaysia border. Rescuers fought to save the animal by deploying buoys to keep it afloat as veterinarians tended to it and propped up red umbrellas to protect its exposed skin from the sun’s rays.The whale vomited up five plastic bags during the rescue attempt. It died, five days after the attempt began.A necropsy revealed that more than 17 pounds of plastic had clogged up the whale’s stomach, making it impossible for it to ingest nutritional food. This waste was in the form of 80 shopping bags and other plastic debris (Nancy). Pilot whales normally eat squid, but they’re also known to go after octopus, cuttlefish, and small fish when food is scarce. Plastic pollution is a consistent problem in the world’s oceans. In Thai waters, more than 300 marine animals are known to die after eating plastic. The list includes pilot whales, but also sea turtles and dolphins. A emaciated sperm whale was found dead on a Spanish beach with more than 60 pounds of trash in its digestive system. A harp seal pup washed ashore with a small plastic film in its gut, a rare case because seals generally don’t mistake plastic for food (Laying Waste to Waste).

A new discovery of a massive amount of plastic floating in the South Pacific is yet another piece of bad news in the fight against ocean plastic pollution. This patch was recently discovered by Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Research Foundation, a non profit group dedicated to solving the issue of marine plastic pollution. Moore, who was the first one to discover the famed North Pacific garbage patch in 1997, estimates this zone of plastic pollution could be upwards of a million square miles in size (Kathiann). On the first transect of the South Pacific gyre in 2011, Marcus Eriksen, marine plastic expert and research director at the 5 Gyres Institute, did not spot much plastic. In only six years, according to the new data collected by Moore, things have changed drastically.  Henderson Island, located in this South Pacific region, was recently crowned the most plastic-polluted island on Earth, as researchers discovered it is covered in roughly 38 million pieces of trash (Nancy). The problem of plastic pollution is becoming ubiquitous in the oceans, with 90 percent of sea birds consuming it and over eight million tons of new plastic trash finding its way into the oceans every year.

I could understand why some people see ocean plastic as an approaching disaster, same as climate change. President Donald Trump stood at a podium in the Rose Garden to announce the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. With Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt beaming in the front row, Trump described the pact, signed by every single other nation on Earth, as “an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries” (Kathiann).  For those that don’t know what the Paris agreement is, The Paris Agreement builds upon the Convention and for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so. (unfccc)  Ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. But how are we going to advance with ocean clean up if the president doesn’t believe climate change is real.  Not using plastic bags and bottles, skipping straws, and avoiding items packaged in plastic. Recycling and not littering are also some ways to reduce your plastic waste. Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University says,  “Let’s say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste.”

Ocean plastic comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from the straws and bottles that drift off to sea into very small micro plastics smaller than grains of sand. No matter the size, plastic in the ocean is a problem. It threatens marine life, human life and the beauty of our beaches and oceans. It kills seabirds and sea turtles that accidentally eat it. It chokes whales and dolphins that get tangled in it or swallow it. The tiny pieces can even end up in the stomach of the fish that goes on our plates.

Alverson, Keith. “Environment: Ocean Pollution Foils Search for Plane.” Nature, vol. 509, no. 7500, May 2014, p. 288. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/509288d.

GIGES, Nancy S. “Tracking Ocean Pollution.” Mechanical Engineering, vol. 136, no. 4, Apr. 2014, pp. 12–15. EBSCOhost, direct=true&db=a9h&AN=95059930&site=ehost-live.

Kowalski, Kathiann M. “Oceans of Trouble.” Current Health Teens, vol. 37, no. 2, Oct. 2010, pp. 16–19. EBSCOhost, direct=true&db=a9h&AN=54016524&site=ehost-live.

Clark, Cristy. “Laying Waste to Waste.” Eureka Street, vol. 28, no. 15, July 2018, pp. 36–38. EBSCOhost, direct=true&db=a9h&AN=131440180&site=ehost-live.

Edwards, Jenes. “The Plastic Generation.” Canadian Geographic, vol. 138, no. 6, Nov. 2018, pp. 53–55. EBSCOhost, direct=true&db=a9h&AN=132055858&site=ehost-live.

2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

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