Once hailed as the solution to all of our problems, the tides have turned on plastic. Now, the material that was once celebrated as the symbol of a golden age is plaguing our oceans, choking marine life and leaching deadly chemicals into the water. A recent report suggested that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic go into our oceans each year. Many recent articles have used the midpoint measurement of those two figures, at 8 million metric tons. What does 8 million metric tons of plastic look like? According to one of the researchers, it looks like 5 plastic bags filled with plastic for each foot of coastline around the world. It also means that roughly 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating on the surface of our oceans.
The study also depicts the sources of the pollution, with countries like China, the Philippines and Indonesia topping the list for most plastic dumped into the ocean per year. The main problem is inadequate waste management systems and growing populations. Of all the countries with coastline bordering the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans as well as the Black and Mediterranean Seas, the United States, with a highly sophisticated waste management system, ranks as the 20th highest polluter. However, the vast majority of the plastic comes from a small number of countries, meaning that even with a ranking of 20, the U.S. contributes less than 1% of overall plastic pollution. That percentage is not horrific, yet it still equates to roughly 300,000 metric tons of plastic going into the oceans from the U.S. each year.
So once it gets into the ocean, how long does all this plastic take to break down?
It is important to note that even though some forms of plastic will break down quickly, they do not disappear. Plastics merely break down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics, which are then consumed by numerous marine species. As plastics decompose they leach chemicals into the ocean, which then affects the entire marine environment and all of the life within it.
In addition to microplastics that result from the decomposition of larger plastic items, another serious issue stems from microbeads. Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic that are found in many everyday products, such as toothpaste and exfoliators. The problem is that these microbeads are so small that they aren’t captured in our waste management systems and flow directly from your drain into the ocean. These microbeads are so common that billions find their way into our environment, including our oceans, every single day. Once there, they act as sponges, absorbing toxins from the surrounding water. So when fish eat these microbeads not only are they consuming the toxins from plastic, but also the toxins that have been absorbed by the plastic. These toxins then make their way up the food chain and onto your dinner plate. It is important for individuals to not only make the switch from using products with microbeads to using natural products, but also to support policies and policy makers that ban the use of microbeads in products. How else can you help save our oceans from the plastic plague?
Seven Ways You Can Help:
As we like to say, great ocean policies start with great ocean champions in Congress. Since 2004, Ocean Champions has spent over $1.6 million on elections, including just under $1 million in 2012 and 2014 alone. This has helped us elect 100 different Members, senior leaders and first time candidates alike. Our electoral engagement, combined with a pragmatic, politically savvy approach to legislative advocacy has earned us a strong reputation on Capitol Hill, and has translated into a growing list of successful policy victories. Help us continue to fight for healthy water and oceans by supporting Ocean Champions today.
Author: Sophia Kirschenman