Monday, June 18, 2018

Why Does Plastic Matter to Whales, Turtles, Fish and Humans?

Marine debris is causing high levels of contamination in our world’s oceans. Its presence in the once pristine waters that are home to all aquatic species accounts for a high number of marine wildlife deaths on a global scale. Plastic is the primary environmental pollutant in our waters and it makes up approximately 80% of all of the debris that is creating the critical habitat crisis of Marine Debris.

We have an infinite variety of uses for plastics in our society, everything from children’s toys and necessary medical equipment that keeps people alive and healthy, to plastic drinking straws and fleece jackets. Until technology catches up with our need to find alternatives to our current uses of plastics, we are essentially in a position to find plastics present in our lives somewhere even if our goal is to live a “zero plastic” lifestyle.

A major issue with all of the currently indispensable plastic items in our lives is that plastic is a petroleum-based material and, once manufactured into a useable state, it never really goes away. It can be recycled and reused, but currently less than 10% of all plastics discarded by humans actually enters the recycling stream. Recycling is not necessarily the answer to our problems either. Plastic degrades to a greater degree after it is recycled each time and cannot infinitely be recycled. This means that your plastic water bottle or coffee mug that proudly declares on the product tag at the time of purchase that it is made entirely of recycled plastic will continue to contaminate our environment over time when it breaks and you decide to recycle it later on.

Almost everyone has heard about the great plastic island in the Pacific Ocean. It has been well publicized and efforts are underway to find solutions to the ever-expanding debris island that makes up this extreme marine pollution situation. This is only one of the garbage patches present in our oceans. There are actually five established areas of ocean debris that have reached epic proportions. You might ask why this floating debris is so dangerous. Yes, it is ugly -but it is also dangerous. The answer to that question is that plastic is insidious, it does not biodegrade and return harmlessly to the environment. This petroleum product does however degrade into micro-particles that remain in the water indefinitely critically changing the environment long-term.

In looking at a trash island from the ocean’s surface you can see larger pieces of debris on the top layers of the water and those larger pieces do get caught in the bodies of marine mammals and fish. However, over time the larger plastic trash items break down to microscopic levels and creates a sludge that goes much deeper into the oceans depths than the floating debris on top. This sludge does allow plankton to coexist with the plastics under certain conditions and zooplankton swim with Nano particles of plastic. Unsuspecting filter feeders will consume the plankton-laden sludge and the toxic substance will remain in their systems, not to be secreted in all cases. If the sludge is extreme it will totally deplete oxygen and cause dead zones underneath the floating trash that are visible on surface layers. Entanglements of discarded fishing and boating gear also create problems for marine wildlife, often exacting a death sentence on any animal or fish unfortunate enough to be caught in the gear.

Eventually contaminated fish and other marine species will be caught and consumed by humans. One of the dangerous substances present in plastics are BPA (Bisphenol A -such as in foam coffee cups) which acts as an endocrine disruptor and has been traced to Diabetes and learning disabilities. It can cause ADD and ADHD and is a factor in both feminizing males and masculinizing females as well as other health issues. It is common for people walking along the beach or fishing by the water to bring a foam cup of take-out coffee and, when done with their drink, discard it on the sand and directly into the water. The progression from the point of discarding this toxic BPA laden substance into the coastal environment could be that the same person carelessly discarding their foam cup may then consume seafood either by cooking their fishing catch when they get home, or by going to a seafood restaurant after their invigorating day by the water order a fish dinner. The fish on their plate may very well be contaminated with BPA from previous foam cups, plates, and other materials tossed into the ocean either from land or sea and which has already deteriorated into the micro-particle sludge in the lower layers of the water.

What can we do to reverse this situation? A lot, but time is running out. Her is a quick list of 5 items that we can put into action today:

  • Carry in-carry out for ALL of your trash, whether on land or at sea.
  • Refuse to buy plastics whenever possible.
  • Refuse foam take-out cups and plastic coffee cup lids.
  • At restaurants say “no” to plastic straws and foam to-go containers.
  • Go to clean-ups whenever you can and create your own mini-clean-ups whenever you are at the water yourself.
We can make a difference for our most precious resource, the world’s oceans and the marine wildlife that inhabit that environment. You may think of yourself as only one person with one voice, but one is more than none and together each one of our voices along with our positive actions will create change!

Cheers from a bottom-feeder!

For further information regarding ocean plastics and the garbage patches try these site:

Bio: Ann Le Blanc is a long-time member of NECWA. She is a Cape Cod resident, lives near Cape Cod Bay and currently and works in that area as a Park Ranger at the Cape Cod Canal. Her educational background includes Environmental Technology, Education, and Sociology.