Posted by: Elizabeth Maksymonko
The world’s oceans face many threats these days, and one that is receiving particular attention is marine debris. Marine debris, or ocean plastics, is an incredibly pervasive problem, and unlike some ocean issues, there is no debate about the cause: humans. Because of improper trash disposal, storm water runoff, and the “throwaway lifestyle” we’ve developed, a surprising amount of our garbage finds its way into the ocean. We’re the cause of the problem, so it’s also up to us to create a solution, and fast.
A common misperception about plastics is that they eventually dissolve in the ocean, thus reducing their impact. This simply is not true: plastics don’t “go away;” they break down into ever smaller, harder to manage pieces called “microplastics.” The rate of breakdown depends on a number of issues, including plastic type and density, how it is compounded, and water temperature. Some degrade faster than others, but it is still there, whether we can see it or not.
Ocean plastic takes many forms: cigarette filters, food wrappers, bottles and cans, grocery and trash bags, and derelict fishing gear. The debris also transports organic compounds, polluting watersheds along the way. This raises serious issues for sea life and humans. Many sea creatures, from turtles to whales to fish, mistake plastic for food and ingest it, causing them to choke or starve, and eventually die. Many animals are also killed when they become entangled in webs of plastic debris. Human health is impacted as we eat seafood that has absorbed toxic chemicals from marine debris, or when we simply step on washed up shards of debris.
The question is, what can we do? Collecting plastic from the ocean itself has proven difficult as the pieces are often so small and are surrounded by marine life. The best way to address this problem is to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place by engineering plastic out of our lives (reusable bags and bottles). NOAA has worked hard to address the issue and encourage this sense of responsibility with its Marine Debris Program.
The Marine Debris Program has been working to prevent debris in the marine environment since 2006, when it was created by the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act. The MDP has grant programs to distribute funds for solutions, and engages the public to drive habit change. Recently, strong ocean champs Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) and Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) reintroduced the Marine Debris Act Reauthorization Amendments Act of 2011 to up the attention given to this growing problem. Ultimately, this is a bipartisan issue that belongs to us all, and it is important to address it not only in Congress and on the national stage, but also as individuals. Reducing, reusing and recycling, as well as incorporating reusable bags and bottles into our daily lives are some good habits to adopt. With personal responsibility as a foundation, and help from our champions in Congress at the top, we can take steps to keep plastic out of our oceans.
Date Posted: March 31, 2011 @ 10:34 am Comments Off