How much plastic is in the ocean? What is its impact on the marine environment and the creatures that inhabit it? What can we do about it?
These are among the questions that have been raised by the environmental community for decades. The answers are staggering. According to the non-profit environmental group 5Gyres " ...a 2017 study published by the United Nations Clean Seas Campaign estimated that there are 51 trillion microplastic particles in the ocean today - 500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy." These microplastic particles are the result of the breakup of plastic products - everything from bazillions of plastic bottles, six pack rings, plastic bags, life rafts, light sticks packaging, fishing gear, etc.
Most of this plastic plague, around 95%, is generated on land, not at sea. Purchased, used and discarded either in landfills or just "thrown away", plastic products and debris is washed down watersheds by rain and other natural processes. It then accumulates on beaches and shorelines and is washed into waterways and oceans. Here it is moved by winds and currents and becomes the primary component of marine debris. The longer it persists in the environment the more it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, forming microplastic particles. Even in this form it lasts virtually forever. This material impacts marine life when fish and other marine animals mistake the bite-size plastic pieces for food. They eat it, and because it has no nutritional value, and cannot be digested, it causes the death of fish, marine mammals, turtles, and other sea life.
One of the most newsworthy and photogenic manifestations is the development of gyres, a natural phenomenon described as " … large-scale systems of wind-driven surface currents in the ocean which form huge collection points for plastic materials. The first known example, the North Pacific Gyre, has been described in a National Geographic website as " … a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth's rotation." Wikipedia reports it as " … the largest ecosystem on Earth, located between the equator and 50° N latitude, and comprising 20 million square kilometers..."
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not restricted to the North Pacific. Marine scientists have also discovered phenomena in many areas of the world[s oceans. This includes a gyre in the Antarctic Ocean which proves that this is truly a global phenomenon. It is sad to realize that the US ability to manufacture huge quantities of plastics means we are exporting huge quantities of this non-biodegradable, resource consuming, ubiquitous poisons to peoples who have no part in its production and distribution.
WHAT WE CAN DO
The good news is that the U.S. is also responsible for development of a great deal of information and action on this issue. This is of some consolation. While we lead the world in the manufacture and disposal of plastics, we also lead the world in the fight to solve the problems caused by this petroleum-based plague. The 5Gyres is among the leaders in developing awareness and action. Since 2008 they have, according to their website, explored 50,000 miles of ocean and, with the help of 100,000 volunteers, documented the nature of the problem and the accomplishments of the process. One of their most effective educational efforts is their "Plastic Free Shopping Guide" which offers products and partners which directly affect the reduction of plastics in the oceans.
One of the oldest, biggest and most effective citizen opportunities to help deal with marine debris is "Get The Drift and Bag It." Among the leaders in this decades=long effort are such diverse coastal states as Hawaii and Texas. In addition to enlisting an eclectic mix of residents both these states, and others, have attracted visitors to their states. While it is true that the gyres are spreading and increasing it is also true that efforts to deal with this oceanic pollution are spreading internationally, thanks in part to the efforts of the United Naions Environmental Programme Clean Seas Campaign. Another major player is the US National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. Learn more, including how the number of busineeses and non-profits that have chosen to join with and support cleanup campaigns continues to grow.
There is much more to learn about this issue and how to help save our oceans. One of the most effective is reduction, reuse and recycling of plastics. For an update on plastics plastic recycling, including options to plastic productions, check out our RESOURCES section below.
Finally, remember - even though this problem manifests itself in the oceans - plastic debris can and does originiate all over the planet and then "migrates" to our waterways and oceans. Get involved - it is a classic opportunity to "think globally and act locally."
To find out more about the scope of the plastic pollution problem visit the 5Gyres website FAQ. Their Plastic Free Shopping Guide is a great source for ideas on how to take positive action as an individual.
Click here for the results of a Google Search on North Pacific Plastic Gyre.
For a comprehensive look at how communities around the world are organizing local "Get The Drift And Bag It" cleanups. Our Hawaii efforts have been going for decades. For an overview and information on volunteer opportunities click here. For information on national and international campaigns click here.
For in=depth information on the United Nations Environment Programme, including comprehensive reports and action guides, click here.
Recycling is still a major activity that is gaining more traction every day. To find out about plastic recycling and action opportunities visit the plasticrecycling.org website.