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The first plastic sandwich bags were introduced in 1957. Nine years later, plastic produce bags were rolled out in grocery stores. It took three decades before the recycling of plastic bags began in 1990, but by 1996 four out of every five grocery bags in the United States were single-use, polyethylene plastic bags. Turn the corner to 2008 and more than 102 billion plastic bags were used in the United States alone.

Over the last ten years, we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century and enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times.

So, where does most of this plastic end up? The ocean — around 80 percent of marine litter originates on land and most of that is plastic. We are treating the ocean like a trash bin with devastating consequences not only to marine life but the entire planetary ecosystem.

How Marine Ecosystems Work

To understand how devastating the current plastics problem is and the effect on the entire marine ecosystem, we must first understand something at the very small end of the spectrum: plankton.

Plankton consist of bacterioplankton (bacteria), virioplankton (viruses), phytoplankton (plants), and zooplankton (animals). Phytoplankton provide the primary food source for the zooplankton and together, they form the base of the oceanic food chain. Much larger zooplankton, fish and mammals all depend on these plankton for their survival. The bacterioplankton recycle and re-mineralize materials and energy within the food chain.

How Plastic Disrupts the Marine Ecosystem and What That Means for the Health of the Ocean and Consequently PeopleFlickr

Phytoplankton also play a critical role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere and releasing oxygen into the water, which is part of the process photosynthesis. National Geographic explains that these “one-celled plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and nutrients into complex organic compounds, which form new plant material. This process, known as photosynthesis, is how phytoplankton grow.” Half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis while the other half is produced by photosynthesis on land by trees and other plants.

Phytoplankton and the ocean are therefore considered one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet much in the same way that the Amazon rainforest is. Scripps Institute of Oceanography stated in 2012 that “26 percent of all the carbon released as CO2 from fossil fuel burning .. was absorbed by the oceans.”

At the very large end of the spectrum, whales are just as critically important as phytoplankton. In fact, phytoplankton rely on whales to exist as they are fertilized by whale excrement (view a 30-metre wide “poonado“).  Whale excrement is responsible for fertilizing phytoplankton, so the fewer whales there are, the less phytoplankton there is. The less phytoplankton there is, the less zooplankton and fish there are and the less carbon dioxide sequestering that is able to occur — and the worse climate change will become.

The tiny plankton and the large whale are as equally important within the entire marine ecosystem, and both play a critical role in the planetary ecosystem which supports all of our lives.

So, back to the original point — what role is plastic playing in all of this?

How Plastic Impacts the Marine Ecosystem

Plastic debris is a pervasive problem throughout the world’s oceans and the blame sits squarely on our shoulders. The estimated 270,000 tons of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean is thought to be responsible for a whopping 700 different marine species who are threatened by its presence, as that plastic plays a role in rising rates of species extinction.

How Plastic Disrupts the Marine Ecosystem and What That Means for the Health of the Ocean and Consequently PeopleFlickr

But it’s not just the large collections of plastics that kill whales and fish and cause seabirds like the albatross to starve to death that are the problem; plastic never fully biodegrades. Instead, plastics photodegrade — that is, they break down under UV light into smaller and smaller pieces to the microscopic level. As they do, any toxic additives they contain, including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticizers, will be released into the marine environment. These tiny pieces break down no further and persist unseen in the deeper layers of the marine environment indefinitely.

Studies confirm that like the whales and fish who mistake macroplastics for food, zooplankton mistake microplastics for food — and the results are usually fatal. Marina Garland from the College of the Atlantic has been researching the persistent pollution problem that is choking the ocean. Her research finds that “aquatic microorganisms, such as plankton, can also mistake microplastic particles for food and subsequently be killed by the adverse effects of the particle on the organism’s digestive tract.”

Additionally, said Garland, “various toxins are known to cling to plastic particles through a process known as adsorption. As a result, plastic flotsam collected from oceans is often a concentrated source for such toxic chemicals as the pesticide DDT. Microorganisms that ingest the toxic plastic particles are often consumed by larger organisms, which then become toxic themselves. The concentration of toxicity in marine organisms continues to increase at the higher levels of the food chain through a process known as biomagnification.”

On top of the visible problem of macroplastics, we have further reason to be critically concerned about the state of the marine ecosystem and consequently, our future on this planet. Macroplastics kill larger marine life like whales and fish, and the photodegradation of macroplastics into microplastics are killing zooplankton. Without these animals alive and well in the marine environment, the oceans will die — and when the oceans die, we die, because one of the biggest carbon sinks will no longer function, nor will the production of half of the world’s oxygen.

What You Can Do

The ocean and its marine life are struggling to survive and it’s because of us. Everyone must act now and this is what you can do:

  • Cut out disposables: Simple alternatives include bringing your own shopping bags to the supermarket, choosing reusable items wherever possible, and purchasing plastic with recycled content. Check out this awesome list of 5 ways you can help reduce your plastic use and 10 ways to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle.
  • Recycle: When you need to use plastic, be sure that you recycle it after you’ve reused it. Each piece of plastic recycled is one less piece of waste that could end up in our oceans.
  • Clean up your beach: Many organizations host clean-up days where you can volunteer to pick up trash at your local beach. Alternatively, you can just do it on your own accord with some friends. A few hours of your time can make a big difference.
  • Look after your own health: As zooplankton mistakenly eat microplastics, the toxin-containing plastics are also eaten by jellyfish and small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish. Many of the same fish are then eaten by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals — take animals off your plate and consume a healthy plant-based diet. Fish are only rich in omega 3 because they eat algae (a plant!) and humans are able to obtain adequate amounts of omega 3 from flaxseeds, walnuts, chia and hemp seeds, and nori. Alternatively, you can always take a “Ovega-3” supplement.
  • Participate: Join One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet campaign to learn more about how your food choices impact the health of the oceans.
  • Get educated on big solutions: Watch the TEDxDelft2012 talk by Dutch Aerospace Engineering student Boyan Slat who unveiled a concept for removing large amounts of marine debris from the five oceanic gyres, showing that one gyre could realistically be cleaned up in five years’ time.

Let’s #CrushPlastic! Click the graphic below for more information.

Leading Image Source: Steven Guerrisi/Flickr

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70 comments on “Why We Need to Wake Up and Do Something to Tackle Plastic Pollution in the Oceans”

Click to add comment
7 Months Ago

What can you do?
Not live in Asia. If you spend hundreds of billions of dollars cleaning up the rivers of the United States of America or all European rivers to the point of being pristine, you will have done effectively nothing to protect the oceans.


Gina McDonald
2 Years Ago

We always take our own shopping bags to the grocery store and just got water bottle with the filter in the top so no more bottled water!

Ida Ornstein
2 Years Ago

The last ten or so years, during summer while on some beach or other, I find myself picking up rubbish, mainly plastic bags from the beach and from the sea. I try to reason with the people who's kids throw their plastic straws on the sand, or the pretty girl in the bikini who has used up all her tanning lotion who just leaves it on the beach, oh and a myriad of other stories I could tell you.....

Steve Zanussi
2 Years Ago

I see it all the time when I kayak off capecod,most of the shit is from fisherman living making there living off the ocean

Kambiz Fatehi
2 Years Ago

END THE CLIMATE CRISES! A STRANGE SCIENTIFIC ERROR OF SCIENTISTS OF HYDROPOWER IN AN IMPORTANT ISSUE AND DESTRUCTION OF HUMAN WEALTH! DISCOVER A NEW HIDDEN ENERGY TO CHALLENGE SCIENTISTS THAT THEY HAVE BEEN WRONG IN THE PART OF HYDROPOWER! DISCOVER A NEW HIDDEN ENERGY TO SAVE HUMANITY! A NEW SCIENTIFIC FORMULA DISCOVERY TO END OF GLOBAL WARMING AND CHANGE THE WORLD! (Ee>Ep+E1at) = (E>P+1at) What is the most difficult scientific question of global hydroelectric that nobody could the answer to it? Now the hard global question! How can we produce clean energy in a best way by the potential of water Static head in dams & seas that this water pressure can push to the center of planet? Answer: This is by getting benefit of joint scientific formula (E>P+1at) with immersion turbine method inside the water of dams & seas. Ee= High pressure clean energy that is produced by the water power plants in the depth of water via released fixed potential energy of water natural pressure (More than ten meters of water) with new method (Immersion turbines of series and parallel in zero resultant forces). Ep= Released fixed potential energy of water natural pressure in water depth (More than ten meters of water). E1at= Amount of energy that is consumed at a small pump of one atmosphere power is the ability (In the same place of the water power plant in water depth). This new method is as like as old method of energy production in dams. The difference is that the volumetric capacity of atmosphere can be made with equipment (Boxes cycle of pipes). With help of this new formula in any depth of water you can get the powerful clean energy! This new method can help us to transfer of volumetric capacity of the atmosphere to the deep water! Natural pressure of water in any depth of water can help to exit water in the boxes cycle of pipes that they installed at the same depth (New power plant of developed hydroelectric). This new formula and new method will produce cheap energy in the world and they can change the world soon! Do not worry because new formula discover can solve the world environment problems (Ee>Ep+E1at). The use of oil and gas has ended really! This new formula works with its new method (Immersion Turbines in depth of sea in zero resultant forces). Thus in power generation, water does not exit from the dams! This is a new industrial revolution in the world. All the scientists in the world are in the shock now. With this great discovery will solve the problem of global warming too. It is a scientific fact. I found the answer a question of science that hundreds of years, scientists are looking for answers. Now the time has come to say that we could find a new theory to produce clean energy more powerful than atomic energy: The scientific use of the formula (Ee>Ep+E1at) and the most advanced new method of producing electricity from immersion turbines in depth of seas and oceans water. With amazing discover of a new clean energy formula in depth of water (E>P+1at). The immersion turbine method in depth of sea is the base of this new model. This invention can change the world and it can start a new industrial revolution in the world. Many scientists believe that the discovery of the formula is unparalleled. Although many still in shock! How this formula has not be discovered by scientists in the world. You can read the articles of (Change the world with Kurdistan ’s industrial revolution) and (A Kurdish inventor has found a new method for electricity production under water). This new formula works with its new method (Immersion Turbines in depth of sea in zero resultant forces). Thus in power generation, water does not exit from the dams! This is a simple form of advanced technology. Constant power plants in water can helps to transfer the energy to the cities. Power transmission cabling system must be secure and safe of industrial. My work is not too important! I just answer a scientific question. Answer to a hard question that scientists are searching for hundreds of years. My new formula and new method can change the world and start a new industrial revolution soon. This invention is patented in Department of Justice in Kurdistan of Iraq No. 952/6 on 12/6/2013. All the scientists have accepted this theory. Investigate the truth is simple. I have to say that this method is very new. It is different from with all the old ways of hydroelectric that we knew them (Hydroelectric of dams and waves and lagoon power plant). Note: This new solution and this new formula invention in Iraq and Turkey to formally accepted. The tv report: Kürt mühendisten elektrik üretim projesi

David M MacAllen
2 Years Ago

Eh to busy fighting gun laws and flying in huge jets to weeks long summits about global impact and climate change to figure out the whole one step at a time thing

Gail Lucas
2 Years Ago

paper bags are better

Angel Ciudades
2 Years Ago

It's all of our problem. The problem with this whole planet is we all actually believe that the planet, nature, animals and humans exist outside of each other when it's the total opposite. If humanity is to evolve it can only happen when we all take responsibility for all of our actions or inaction. Once humanity realizes it will not advance without working together it will make the leap from unconscious, capitalistic sheep into the conscious and awakened state. Unfortunately there's too many people who believe otherwise and sadly it's the 11th hour and the change isn't taking place fast enough to catch up with the elite who are way ahead of us in this understanding and withholding this universal truth. They keep us under constant surveillance, feed us toxic crap all while being spoon fed nothing but lies through their brainwashed media. United we stand and divided humanity will most certainly fall. #truth

Shauna CK
2 Years Ago

https://www.facebook.com/groups/ZeroWasteWeekHeroes/ This is a great public group with tips on how to cut plastics & single use items out of your life! If anyone is interested in checking out how to be #ZeroWaste

Brett Lindskog
2 Years Ago

Disgusting !


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