Our Plastic Problem and Five Ways You Can Help

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As many social feeds are recently showing, the growing amount of plastic waste is readily evident in our daily lives. From the infamous video of good samaritans pulling a plastic drinking straw from the nose of a sea turtle, to the 2016 report showing that by 2050 our oceans will contain more weight in plastic waste than fish, it’s becoming apparent, and frankly hard to ignore, that people’s obsession with disposable plastic products is a problem. Luckily, humans are resourceful, creative and largely good at heart, and there are some simple ways anyone can be part of a solution.

The problem

Due to the short-term cost effectiveness of goods like grocery bags, drinking straws, water bottles and cheap product packaging, disposable plastic products are as pervasive as just about any other man-made substance on Earth. The problem is that although in the short-term these products provide cheap solutions, in the long-term they will prove to be indeterminately expensive. It is increasingly rare to walk along a beach, or dive a site without seeing plastic pollution, and despite it seeming a mere eye-sore, the trash has a real impact.

Studies show that in large mammal beachings, like the recent stranding of hundreds of pilot whales in New Zealand, many of the animals are found to have plastic trash in their guts. Although the link between the strandings and the gut content of these animals has not been proven, it is a safe assumption that a link exists. Pelagic (open-ocean inhabiting) animals like whales, porpoises, sea turtles and others most likely ingest the floating plastic confusing it for one of their favorite meals… jellyfish and squid (think clear plastic grocery bags) and subsequently suffer from malnutrition. The ecosystem depends on these keystone species to keep the oceans healthy. Though one may not think about it, human civilization relies heavily on the ocean to help maintain the planet’s overall health. The ocean ecosystem provides more of the oxygen than all of the terrestrial plants combined, and also absorbs more carbon dioxide than any other system on Earth. And with the amount of plastic waste entering the environment, its effects are already being felt worldwide.

Plastic Problem Jellyfish Alex Lichtblau June 2017

A jellyfish is one of the sea turtles favorite meals; many animals prey on jellyfish, including the famously large ocean sun fish.

Plastic Problem Alex Lichtblau June 2017

A clear plastic bag very closely resembles jellyfish and is easily confused for food by sea turtles and others

Evidence of the sheer amount of trash can been seen in the well-known Pacific Trash Vortex, a monstrous floating island of plastic waste found in the gyre of major ocean currents between California and Japan. This floating trash dump contains many miles of trash, ranging in size from enormous abandoned life rafts down to microscopic and ominous plastic debris such as microbeads found in hand sanitizers and facial scrubs. The evidence exists not only in a floating plastic-island the size of Texas, but as well in the nearly unreachable depths of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the oceans at more than 6 miles deep.

Plastic Problem Microplastics Alex Lichtblau June 2017

We are filling our oceans with microplastics; tiny degraded pieces of normal plastic trash

The point is, plastic is everywhere, and it shouldn’t be. Whether through active littering, or by passive means like runoff from rivers and landfills, plastic continues to fill the environment. And what makes plastic so useful is also its most dangerous quality…it is incredibly durable and will not biodegrade.

Solutions in the works

Recently, a push to raise awareness about the issue through mass media coverage has spurred the innovation of many solutions to start battling plastic pollution. A young man recently published his intention and ideas to start removing trash from the oceans in this inspiring video. Many cities across the US have begun to implement bans on plastic grocery bags, plastic water bottles and other disposable products. Some places with internal waterways, like Baltimore, Maryland, have implemented automated trash collectors (like a Roomba for canals). SeaBin, designed for marinas, is a pollutant vacuum, and sucks up any trash and oil that floats its way. Adidas has even come out with a shoe made entirely from recycled plastic collected from the ocean. All of these large-scale solutions are great, but how can you, the lone warrior, have an impact on the war against plastic?

Five simple ways you can help

  • Buy a set of reusable containers; a tumbler for your water or beverages, a Tupperware food container for your take-away meals and maybe even a reusable straw. Then, carry them with you, in your purse, backpack, car or tote bag. And finally, USE THEM! Saying ‘no thanks!’ to plastic straws, styrofoam or plastic take-away containers and plastic water bottles will most definitely help to raise awareness around you, and may even earn you a discount at your favorite places!
  • Get yourself a lightweight, durable, cloth tote bag to use for any instance where the cashier or vendor hands over your purchase in a bag that will do nothing but go straight to your trash bin when you get home.
  • Take part in community projects to clean up trash from beaches, dive sites, parks, nature trails and even your own neighborhood, or do it all on your own! It helps to raise awareness, promote role-model behavior, and may even make a habitual litterer think twice about tossing their trash anywhere but the proper waste receptacle. One incredible organization is Take 3, a non-profit which promotes the idea of removing 3 pieces of trash anytime you go to the ocean as a simple approach to spreading awareness about the topic. Use their hashtag #take3forthesea and visit their site to learn more!
  • For the things you simply cannot go without that are packaged in plastic containers, try to recycle them properly when you’re through. You can also try reusing and repurposing certain items…get creative!
  • Talk with your family, friends and kids about adopting these easy-to-do practices, and why it’s important to you. Remember that the most powerful influence on the people around you is not mainstream media, Facebook or ad campaigns, but you and your passions and convictions. You can also call your local representatives to let them know how you feel about disposable plastic goods. Every voice counts!

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About Author

I first learned to dive in the Galapagos Islands in 2011 and was instantly hooked, both to diving and to the underwater world in general. I grew up in the Arizona desert, and studied Ecology there as well, and I now relish the opportunity to spend my time in the water. Diving has been my profession for the last 3 years; I guided and taught courses for 2 years in the Caribbean, and have recently switched gears to the ever-more diverse and vastly different Indo-Pacific. When I’m not giving people an inside look at life underwater, I love hiking, spicy food, karaoke, and good dad-jokes.

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