The high cost of convenience

Plastic Pollution Threatens Sea and Human Life


Photo Courtesy of NOAA Marine Debris Program via Flickr

This green sea turtle is tangled in a discarded plastic fishing net.

Mia Chairez, Staff Writer

Our oceans are teeming with an abundance of beautiful plants and creatures, however, that life is under threat due to our undying quest for convenience. While plastic has made our lives easier in many respects, it is also decimating sea animal and plant populations by creating an increasingly toxic environment. Recently, a grotesque example of this turned up on an ocean shore.  Thirteen sperm whales were found on the beaches of Germany at the end of January. The whales’ stomachs were filled with a variety plastic debris from engine covers to shopping bags. Ocean pollution needs to stop, not only for the preservation of sea life, but to ensure human survival as well. We can help by increasing our awareness and decreasing our contribution to plastic waste.

Whales are not the only species that suffer due to the plastic pollution. There are other sea mammals and seabirds that sustain injuries or die due to ingesting our trash. In Hawaii, turtles were also found dead with excessive plastic inside their stomachs and intestines. Countless sea creatures are getting tangled in netting, fish lines, and other plastic gear left behind by the fishing industry. The Laysan Albatross is just one of the seabird species affected by plastic waste. While skimming the surface of the ocean for food they gather plastic, as well as fish up in their beaks. The birds often mistake floating plastic waste for food which leads to consuming it themselves and bringing it back for their chicks to eat.  When the birds eat too much plastic their stomachs become full of indigestible material and they can starve or die from digestive complications.

Though some people may not find a loss of animal life concerning, plastic in the ocean is also harmful to humans. The toxins in plastic waste are making ocean water unhealthy for swimming or fishing. As the toxicity increases in ocean life, it increases for us as well. We can’t eat fish caught in this polluted environment without potentially introducing dangerous levels of those chemicals in our bodies. Fish populations are also in decline and though this decrease is partly attributed to over-fishing, microplastics are a rising concern. Microplastics result from the decomposition of larger pieces of plastic waste and fish eventually die from breathing or ingesting too much. This affects our food supply even further.

Even more concerning, scientists estimate that anywhere from 50 to 85 % of our oxygen comes from the ocean. Phytoplankton are the microscopic ocean plants responsible for taking in large amounts of carbon dioxide and creating oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. Experts report it is difficult to tell exactly how much phytoplankton is in the ocean, but a variety of large-scale studies conclude that these little oxygen producing plants are dying in significant numbers due to microplastic.

For those who doubt the scale of waste being dumped into the ocean, one very visible example remains hard to deny. Over the years, a vast amount of plastic waste gradually surfaced, gathered and formed an island. That island commonly referred to as “The Pacific Garbage Patch” is now double the size of Texas. The patch primarily contains plastic bags and bottles, all products purchased to be used only once and then discarded by individuals like you and me. In the future, scientist estimate the island will simply increase if we fail to address our plastic consumption. Currently, there is an additional island growing in the Atlantic Ocean and yet another in the Indian Ocean. Biologists have found these floating heaps of trash are harming both sea creatures and birds, as well as destroying the fishing industries that depend on those areas to sustain themselves.

There are a plethora of ways that we can clean up our oceans and make sure they stay clean. Of course, there should be stricter, universal laws passed to restrict the dumping of plastic into the oceans, but reducing our own personal waste is essential. Avoid using any single-use plastic item like silverware, straws, bottles or plastic wrap. When shopping, make sure you bring sturdy, reusable bags. Get used to carrying a reusable cup or bottle so that you don’t have to buy or throw away plastic containers. Stop buying bottled water and filter your own instead. Try to buy products in bulk or in boxes instead of plastic. When you do buy plastic products or packages make sure you reuse and recycle them. Remember that Fresno County does not recycle plastic bags so avoid them at all times or take them to the specialized plastic bag bins that some stores offer. Also, remember to keep all recycling clean and dry. Excessive solid waste or residue usually ensures it will be thrown into a landfill despite the fact that you placed it in the bin.

This is the place we live; we need to take care of it. The oceans cover most of our planet and we cannot exist without them. Working to eliminate plastic from our daily lives undoubtedly requires some effort, but revitalizing the oceans’ ecosystems, our food supply and the world’s greatest source of oxygen is worth a little inconvenience.