The Great Pacific Garbage Problem

Plastic Waste Is Harmful To The Ocean, Marine Life & Humans:
How You Can Help

Litter is ubiquitous. But is it a problem?

People may not die as a direct result of litter, but scientists suggest that more than a million birds and marine animals die each year from consuming or becoming caught in plastic and other debris. Besides killing wildlife, plastic and other debris damage boat and submarine equipment, litter beaches, and discourage swimming. In addition, litter has an additional human impact: the debris can harm commercial and local fisheries by introducing chemicals and plastics into the food chain that are harmful when consumed by marine life and humans.  All together, when you consider that litter is not the only issue facing our oceans and associated fisheries, humans may be severely putting our food supply at risk.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that plastics make up only 13 percent of the municipal solid waste stream. And yet, plastic constitutes 90 percent of all trash floating in the world’s oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean, is estimated to be twice the size of the state of Texas. And, it’s not the only one—there are at least four other garbage patches in our world’s oceans.

A recent 2015 study, published in Science, reports that nearly nine million tons of plastic is dumped into the world’s oceans every year, and the amount of plastic ending up in our oceans is expected to more than double in the next 10 years.

These giant floating waste piles may represent only a fraction of the discarded plastic. Where is the rest? Scientists believe it is lingering in deep ocean and coastal sediments, buried in Arctic ice, and even more troubling, “it has been ingested with dire consequences by [up to] 700 species of marine wildlife,” according to a recent National Geographic article reporting on the new study. These plastics have been found in the circulatory system of mussels, zooplankton, and lugworms living in sediment. They have been found in the stomachs of sea turtles and ocean birds, like the albatross, entangled in the tentacles of jellyfish, and trapping dolphins and even whales in the tangle of debris.

If we stop adding to the problem, the oceans may be able to recover. It’s essential that innovative products and packaging designed for recycling or reuse replace single-use, throw away options. Here in Seattle, the city is taking the first steps: it is the first U.S. city to require that all single-use food service packaging be either compostable or recyclable.

If we do not reduce the available amount of plastic waste from human activities, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste entering the ocean is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025, according to the report in Science. Only 20 percent of the ocean plastic comes from marine sources, the rest comes as plastic is swept into the ocean from rivers and coastal activity, according to the study.

It’s not just marine animals and our food supply that suffers—there are other costs associated with plastic waste. According to a report issued by the UN Environment Program, problems resulting from the use of plastic cost businesses $75 billion annually in the form of pollution in the marine environment, air pollution caused by incinerating plastic, or greenhouse gas emissions from raw material extraction and processing.

Innovative agencies like our own Seattle Public Utilities show that reducing, recycling, and redesigning products can bring multiple green economy benefits, including reducing economic damage to marine ecosystems, reducing the impact on tourism and fisheries industries, bringing savings and opportunities for innovation to companies producing consumer goods, and saving tax dollars by reducing plastic waste destined for landfills.

By Cate O’dahl

Do Your Part To Prevent Plastic Waste

Nearly all experts agree: preventing plastic in the ocean comes down to managing waste on land, where most of the trash originates. Follow these simple steps to reduce excess plastic waste and stop it from ending up in landfills or the ocean:

Avoid buying items packaged in plastic

Buy items in cardboard boxes instead of plastic bottles

Purchase food, like cereal, pasta, and rice from bulk bins

Use cloth shopping bags

Skip bottled water. Carry a reusable canteen

Bring a reusable mug when you order coffee

Avoid disposable tableware, or use the compostable kind

Bring your own container for takeout and leftovers

Make your own juice

Make your own cleaning products, using natural ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar, and water

List adapted from suggestions in EcoWatch article, “10 Ways to Use Less Plastic Every Day,” November 15, 2013, Green Education Foundation, “Tips to Use Less Plastic,” and Mother Nature Network, “16 simple ways to reduce plastic waste.”

(Note: this article was originally published in the Sustainable Living Guide 2015, in Seattle Natural Awakenings, April 2015)

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