Plastic is in almost everything we use nowadays. Bottles, food containers, clothing, packaging, storage, all kinds of machines, even items like medical equipment, toothbrushes and those little coffee K cups. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, people have discarded more than 6 billion tons of plastic since 1950. Of that, only 9 percent has been recycled.
What happens to all that plastic?
Let’s start with Rachel Carson's warning that there is no “away.” Any time we throw something “away,” it actually has to go someplace. Often this place is a landfill or recycling center, at least at first. However, disposal of plastic waste is a big challenge that we don’t know how to meet. Even recycling, when we do it, is an extremely limited and imperfect answer. More than 80 percent of plastic litter in the ocean comes from land-based sources, and the rest comes from plastics directly released at sea.
Currently, every nine minutes, plastic weighing as much as a blue whale – about 300,000 pounds! – ends up in the ocean. Dr. Roland Geyer, associate professor of industrial ecology and green supply chain management at UC Santa Barbara estimates it at 8 million metric tons each year, enough to cover 34 Manhattan Islands ankle-deep. It is projected that by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish.
Garbage floating in the ocean
Many of us have seen images of a giant floating patch of garbage, called a gyre, in the middle of the ocean. As it turns out, there are five gyres: one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean and two in the Pacific. But it is not really accurate to think of them as patches. The debris is spread across the surface of the water and then from the surface all the way to the ocean floor
. The contents range from consumer waste such as bags, plastic bottles and balloons to industrial products like plastic sheeting and hard hats. And remember, once it is in the ocean, it never breaks down, it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics
This growing problem is even more widespread than we thought until recently. Researchers estimate that there are more than 414 million pieces of plastic debris weighing 524,000 pounds on the beaches of one of the most remote areas of the world, Australia’s Cocos Island.
Much closer to home, it turns out that our beautiful Monterey Bay is not as clean as it looks. A new study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), found that microplastics are disturbingly common throughout Monterey Bay, from the ocean's surface and all the way down into the deep sea to the seafloor.
Bruce Robison, a senior scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, told NPR that he was shocked at how much plastic they found. “The fact that plastics are so pervasive, that they are so widespread, is a staggering discovery, and we'd be foolish to ignore that,” he said.
The tiny non-biodegradable bits are eaten by plankton, baby fish, and other marine life, and work their way up the food chain. They have been found in ice cores, throughout the oceans and on beaches around the world. Microplastics are also very absorbent, picking up the chemicals and leaching toxins into the animals that eat them. And as Bruce Robison says, "Anything that humans introduce to that habitat is passing through these animals and being incorporated into the food web."
Recent studies support this and point to increasing amounts of plastic within the seafood that we eat. Researchers at Ghent University in Belgium found that people who regularly eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic each year. Another study by Plymouth University found that one-third of all fish caught in the UK contained tiny pieces of plastic.
Plastics also directly impact larger marine life in many ways. Whales, turtles and other creatures can become entangled in debris like six-pack rings and abandoned nets, and they swallow large plastic pieces which can harm or kill them.
What can we do?
Prevention is better than a cure
- The most important thing is to reduce, or better yet, eliminate, our use of single-use plastic. This includes water bottles, coffee K-cups, food containers and straws.
- Use reusable water bottles and other containers – you can bring them with you wherever you go!
- Remember your reusable shopping bags.
- Encourage businesses to stop using throw-away plastic.
- Support policies to reduce single-use plastic.
In Santa Cruz County we have passed important measures such as banning the use of plastic bags (also now in effect throughout California), as well as plastic straws and Styrofoam containers, and small shampoo and conditioner bottles in hotels. (In May 2019, the state legislature moved toward a similar ban.) Still just a drop in the bucket, or ocean, but it’s a start.
Recycle? Yes, but...
- A lot of plastic cannot be recycled!
- Even recyclable plastic cannot be recycled infinitely, and after one or two times it will be discarded to join the rest of the plastic that will take centuries to degrade. One single water bottle will remain on the planet in some form for a minimum of 450 years. The actual life cycles and impacts are unknown.
- Protect the ocean from plastic pollution! Organizations such as Save Our Shores host regular clean-up days and provide a range of opportunities to join a community dedicated to ocean conservation and a thriving Monterey Bay.
- Talk about plastic pollution and its devastating impacts with family, friends and colleagues. Share on social media and in your community!
Here are a few of the many organizations that provide information and news on plastic pollution, ocean health and related issues:
Resources and Links