Imagine if you could have your own private island, larger than the state of Texas. This space could be yours, if you do not mind the fact that it is made of microscopic plastic. You could take a 14-hour cruise from end to end, or cover the distance by running 12 marathons.
Somewhere in our blue backyard, a massive amalgamation of garbage known as the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch (GNPGP) exists, not recently discovered, but as early as 1997. Despite its name, it is not a blanket of floating plastic bags and soft drink bottles; instead, it is an area where tiny plastic particles suspend in the water column, making it extremely challenging to clean up.
So how did the entity responsible for this environmental catastrophe get away with it?
The answer: the blame cannot be pinned on one sinister corporation. The GNPGP came to be not as a single event of massive rubbish dumping, but due to the convergence of marine pollution brought together by oceanic currents over time.
Unfortunately, this monstrosity of pollution does not assume the persona of a gentle giant. Its existence spreads harm to marine life and the people that depend on it. The GNPGP is not alone. Around other oceans in the world, there loom other garbage patches.
Let us begin from the start of the destruction plastic brings, when it is still intact. Plastic bags are easily mistaken for jellyfishes and are often and readily consumed by marine animals, especially when food is difficult to come by in the blue vastness. Plastics can take on another insidious guise when a thin layer of algae grows on them, making them smell like food.
The life of one Hawksbill turtle came to a tragic end after it ate 106 pieces of plastic, revealed by Auckland Zoo, which was unable to save the creature after 13-days of intensive care. A University of Queensland study estimates that 52 percent of sea turtles have eaten plastic debris, and they are not alone. In a 2006 report, Greenpeace stated that at least 267 species of animals have been impacted by plastic debris, either by entanglement or ingestion.
Further along the plastic’s long lifespan, it breaks down over time giving rise to chemicals and fragmented plastic debris, also known as mermaid tears. The chemicals released are known to interfere with the reproductive systems of fishes and some are even suspected to cause cancer. Pieces of debris can reach microscopic levels, and affect the smallest of marine organisms. Apart from the chemicals they release themselves, plastics also act like sponges and absorb other toxins from the environment, making it a potent cocktail.
When small animals that are at the bottom of the food chain get adversely affected, it can send a shockwave all the way up. Not only would there be a decrease in food supply for the larger animals, concentration of toxic chemicals and plastics also increases up the food chain through bioaccumulation. Fish such as tuna or mackerel amass plastic through their feeding habits when they prey on many smaller organisms that carry small amounts of plastic themselves.
These fish make their way from ocean to aisle, and who can say for certain that the only plastic in contact with the fish we purchase are the bags we put them in? Ghent University in Belgium calculates that we eat 11,000 fragments of plastic annually through our consumption of shellfish. While current levels of human exposure to plastics are not yet cause for alarm, the case may be different in the next decade or so if more plastics enter our ocean, increasing levels of contamination in our seafood.
Indeed, plastic pollution has many victims in its vise grip.
The situation may seem bleak, but we are not yet doomed to being served something resembling a plastic bottle when we order seafood. A project (launched by Dutch entrepreneur, Boyan Slat) known as The Ocean Cleanup utilizes the ocean currents to catch large enough plastics before they break down. At the 2017 World Ocean Summit, Indonesia pledged up to $1bn a year to staunch its flow of ocean waste.
On the individual level, you can choose to recycle plastic waste. This decreases the amount of new plastic entering the ocean. By choosing to recycle, you actively choose the fate of the unwanted plastics, instead of giving it a chance to be irresponsibly disposed.
Another simple lifestyle change is to avoid personal-care products containing microbeads. These beads are typically found in certain toothpastes, facial scrubs and body scrubs. When we rinse them off, they ultimately end up in oceans and waterways through our sewage system. In the United States alone, enough microbeads are released into the ocean daily to cover more than 300 tennis courts.
Prevention is better than cure; cleaning up even a fraction of the trillions of tiny plastic beads that pollute our ocean would be a near impossible task. In the United Kingdom, a ban on the sales and manufacturing of “rinse-off” cosmetics containing microbeads has already come into effect. A Californian ban will see such products being phased out by 2020. But wherever one is in the world, whether a ban is present or not, all it takes is environmental consciousness to avoid these products.
Quoting renowned explorer Jacques Cousteau,
the sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
I hope this article informs and inspires you to reduce plastic pollution and preserve the beauty of our ocean.
This is a guest post written by Zach Ang.
Zach is currently 21 years and is waiting for university to start. Meanwhile, he has decided to use this time to write about the environment, which he is very interested in, especially the ocean.