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 plankton for their survival. The bacterioplankton recycle and re-mineralize materials and energy within the food chain.
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 of 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-meter 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 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 that are threatened by its presence, as plastic plays a role in rising rates of species extinction.
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 an “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.
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