human footprint on beach
Environment Ocean

Don’t Plasticize Me

Trash. Litter. Rubbish. Junk. Debris. Refuse. Waste. Whatever you call it, why is so much of it ending up in the (global) ocean?

Where was it along the line of human social evolution that we actually began to embody the notion that we could or should ‘conquer nature’? If you look at definitions of the word ‘nature’ (e.g. English Oxford Living Dictionary) humans are explicitly excluded; we actually define the word ‘nature’ to be separate from humans and human activity. This seems like the fallacy of all fallacies given that all matter is fundamentally composed of the same building blocks, and that without “nature”, we don’t exist, we are absolutely intrinsically connected. There is no doubt that the human species is unique in many ways, but I personally have a lot of trouble reconciling with the part of humanity that espouses this anthropocentric superiority complex. Look around you at all that exists. From the small pebble on the ground to the towering mountain ranges; the single green leaf popping through the soil to the stunning forests they create; the single drop of water to the astounding blue planet that we inhabit; the tiny caterpillar to the butterfly it becomes; the babies first cry to the breadth and depth of humanity…it is all composed of the same universal matter, pieced together in an infinite number of astonishing ways.

In this vein, one significant aspect of humanity that sets us apart from the rest of the natural world is that we have figured out how to perform a sort of alchemy, and we have chosen to pursue it. We have taken those same building blocks of matter and put them together in ways not found in nature. These “man-made” materials that typically come out of some laboratory are heavily processed and altered until the desired product is achieved. It sometimes seems to me like Bunsen Honeydew, the mad scientist from The Muppet Show, and his haphazard assistant Beaker are calling the shots on steering this man-made materials rollercoaster. Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that no man-made material has become more ubiquitous on Earth than plastic (or perhaps cigarette butts are vying for that claim). Closing the pages on the 11,650-year-old Holocene Epoch, have you heard the talk about defining this new geological era as either the Anthropocene or the Plastocene? The idea being that this period of the geologic record will be remembered as the age of humans, and thus plastics. That’s a really desolate result of this attitude around conquering nature, making it bend and break to meet our wants and desires. There really is no way for humanity to not leave footprints on the planet, we have touched everything there is to touch and more, like kids in a candy store, but we can have a global conversation about what kinds of footprints we are comfortable leaving. Personally, I’m definitely not comfortable with the colossal plastic footprint that we are leaving in our wake.

As of late, and rightfully so, talk of plastics and trash have been littering (pun intended) the forefront of social media, news and the blogosphere. It’s hard to imagine that I could reach a larger audience or do more justice to this subject than what National Geographic published in their 06.2018 issue: ‘Planet or Plastic?’ or the documentary A Plastic Ocean (please read this article and watch this documentary (it’s on Netflix) – the words, photographs and movie can really broaden your awareness and bring the issues home). As for me, I’m simply adding my voice and perspective to an issue that is important to me, and I want to talk specifically about the part of the trash and plastic problem termed “marine debris”. Marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment (or the Great Lakes). The term ‘debris’ actually makes it sound to me like just a little bit of a problem, ‘it’s just a little debris, you know, scattered pieces of waste or remains’. But it’s not at all ‘just a little debris’, it’s tons and tons and metric tons of trash floating around the surface of the seas and oceans, amassing in truly gigantic heaps in ocean gyres, being swept along in underwater ocean currents like highways of trash, mixing downwards and collecting on the ocean floor in huge masses, stuck on, in and all around coral and rocky reefs, littering beaches and waterways all over the globe, and choking out massive amounts of marine life.

So how much debris are we actually talking about? Around 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year (that is said to be visualized as 5 trash bags full of debris for every foot of coastline on the planet), and along with continued plastic production and consumption, that number is on the rise. This needs to be cut off at the source immediately, there’s no Band-Aid big enough to stop that kind of bleeding! Scientific American has reported that about 90% of all the plastic that reaches the world’s oceans gets flushed through just 10 rivers, 8 of them in Asia, with China and Indonesia topping the charts. I wonder about the irony of China being the nation vastly leading the “mismanaged plastic waste” category, while there is hardly a product out there (especially the plastic ones) that don’t say ‘Made in China’.

The cause and effect of marine debris are definitely amplified by coastal, riverine, island and boating communities as a matter of proximity, but make no mistake, this issue is owned by each and every one of us.

The word on the street is that by the year 2050, given our current “trends”, there will be more trash than fish in the oceans.

What the *bleep*, that’s really enormously messed up (please read my post on fisheries for the other part of that story). This is a social and environmental disaster of epic proportions. Seriously. It’s a blatant slap in the face to wake up humankind to sincerely grasp the impacts of our disposable lifestyles. The number of tangible examples of this surreal plas-aster (yes that’s a clever combo of the words plastic and disaster) are playing out like a deck of cards strewn across the table, take your pick. The whale with the stomach full of plastic bags, the turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose, the coral reef strangled in derelict fishing gear…I for one actually lose sleep over the images of the typically fatal clash between human trash and marine life. It’s estimated, for example, that one million seabirds are killed by marine debris every single year. One Million. Line up one million seabirds in your mind, can you even envision that? How many millions of seabirds do we think even exist out there? When a young seabird can’t even take flight to forage on its own because of the weight of plastics in its stomach, inadvertently fed to it by its parents as an infant in the nest…how can we reconcile that?

Plastics don’t biodegrade, they just break down from photodegredation (sun and heat exposure) into smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics) over time, becoming even more prolific. Microplastics have become so abundant in the oceans that they have even been found trapped in Arctic sea ice in astonishingly high concentrations. These plastic fragments also adsorb chemicals free floating in the surrounding water, so when an animal unwittingly ingests them, these hitchhiking toxins then migrate into their bloodstream and bioaccumulate in the fatty tissues. Micro and macro plastics are being ingested by all trophic levels in the marine food web from zooplankton to apex predators, where the associated toxins accumulate in concentration as you move up the chain. These animals are often dying because of suffocation or starvation, turns out it’s pretty hard to eat when something is lodged in your throat or your stomach is already completely filled with un-digestible plastics. This has far reaching consequences not just for all the ocean creatures, but also for humans who eat seafood. So the question is where and how do we draw the line?

This is where we take a collective deep breath, connect with a sense of reverence for nature (of which we are NOT separate) and face the problem head on.

The story of “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, not to be confused with Charlie Brown’s “The Great Pumpkin Patch”, is about two colossal patches of trash in the Northern Pacific Ocean that are bounded in the by the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre: the Western Garbage Patch located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch located between Hawaii and California. They aren’t the only vortices of trash collecting in the oceans, in fact there are six areas across the globe where ocean currents concentrate marine debris, but it’s the largest and most notable. According to a recent report, the Eastern patch alone stretches across 617,000 square miles of the northern Pacific Ocean (that’s twice the size of Texas), weighs 87,000 tons (more than 43,000 cars), and contains more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, equivalent to 250 pieces of trash for every single human being on the planet. To add insult to injury, it also appears to be rapidly growing. The trash is 99% plastics of all sizes, and about half of that is discarded fishing nets – a double whammy for the oceans and seas from fishing fleets (again, please read my post about the overfishing part of that picture). Sadly, it’s not just a surface problem either, marine debris is strewn downward vertically through the water column where it can remain suspended or sink to the bottom of the ocean (70% of marine debris is thought to sink to the bottom).

Where does all this ‘debris’ come from? National Geographic reports that about 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia, the remaining 20% coming from boaters, offshore oil rigs, and large cargo ships that dump or lose debris directly into the water (ships throughout the world are said to discard 5.5 million pieces of trash into the oceans every day). I remember learning about an ecological principle in college called NIMBY. Not In My Back Yard. I disliked this term then, and I dislike the reality of it as a prevalent human attitude even more now. It’s kind of like saying, “what massive flotilla of trash in the ocean? Doesn’t affect me, it’s not in my backyard, I can’t see it”. This in my mind is just willful blindness, a convenient way to avoid looking at the problem or having a sense of responsibility.

The obvious question is why not just go and clean it all up? Well, because it’s not at all trivial and that doesn’t stop it from happening again and again and again. No nation has really wanted to foot the bill for the efforts, there are technology issues with scooping up the trash without accidentally scooping up ocean life as well, and it’s truly a massive cleanup job. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships with nets one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean patch. Remember that human ingenuity that created plastic to begin with? It’s certainly high time to tap into that creative source to solve this problem of marine debris and plastic pollution, and there are groups all over the globe working on this, but more minds and resources are needed to start making big dents in the whole process. The Ocean Cleanup is taking a real stab at a clean-up effort using non-conventional methods (not vessels and nets), and is hopeful that the story by 2050, rather than the one about there being more plastic than fish, will be one of a plastic free ocean. But we can’t just sit back as individuals and hope that others will figure out how to clean this mess up, phew problem solved. No, our job as individuals is to stop contributing to the problem, and instead help to cut off the sources of marine debris. Anything is possible when we’re all onboard.

It’s simply not acceptable for the oceans (and other waterways) to bear the brunt of our plastic waste. It is not likely that plastic production is just going to come to a screeching halt. So there has to be value placed on plastic to keep it in a circular supply loop and not viewed as completely disposable. There is a really cool thing going on at The Plastic Bank doing just this. They are creating a currency out of plastic waste in impoverished communities (often littered with plastics), thus creating an economy around recycling – helping to empower people living in poverty, keeping plastics out of the ocean and reusing the plastics that are already in circulation. The recycled product called ‘Social Plastic’ is then intentionally purchased by large companies, who choose to support the movement, to make their products rather than purchasing and using virgin plastics that are not already in circulation. Consumers can then choose to only purchase products made from Social Plastic.

So, what’s my point? I’m using marine debris as an explicit example to show that things are not good in the hood. But we already all know that on one level or another, there’s hardly any escaping the barrage of catastrophic, apocalyptic forecasts out there these days. I am certain that a gloomy future doesn’t feel good to anyone, human or otherwise, our needs for having clean air, water and food are fundamental. It makes me feel very disturbed and scared and, and, and…you can fill in the blanks with your own set of emotions that get triggered by these issues. Changing our ways can be really hard, we were all pretty much brought up in this disposable consumerism atmosphere. It’s one thing to write about these issues and then lament over them in our heads and in our social circles, it’s another thing to decide to take personal responsibility and then create action. And it’s the latter that will make a difference, obviously. I’m not going to go and discuss these issues with my friends while eating sushi from a Styrofoam container and drinking some drink from a plastic cup with a plastic straw. At the end of the day it is important to live by our values and be firm in our commitments, being complacent is to throw our hands up and say, “forget it, I’ll do whatever I want because my actions alone can’t make a difference, and if the person next to me doesn’t care then why should I”? But there really are explicit things we all could and pretty much should do immediately to stop adding to this massive problem of marine debris and instead become part of the solution(s). If everyone took one step forward on this issue, we would be on our way.

The tides have started to shift; awareness is rising and changes are underway. While social and policy changes from every angle are absolutely necessary, and are starting to slowly materialize, we are seeing immediate resolutions including bans on things like plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic utensils, and Styrofoam in some cities, states, countries and island nations. Discussions about banning all single use plastics are also currently on the table in some places. People are increasingly choosing to avoid purchasing plastic products in their daily lives and for use in their homes and businesses. Until effective policy changes emerge, consumer choice is king. If we seriously curtail or even stop purchasing plastics as individuals, well that’s a great start. It’s estimated that America alone in 2017 used about 50 billion plastic water bottles, only 23% of which were recycled, leaving 38 billion in a trash pile somewhere, many ending up in the oceans. So, what if not a single one of us ever purchased a plastic bottle of water or soda or whatever again? That choice would put a pretty good dent in that source of single-use plastic marine debris. Turn down the plastic straw and decorative umbrella in your fancy drink on the beach. I did a SCUBA dive from shore in Barbados a couple of years ago and I saw more plastic cups and straws littered all over the sandy bottom and lodged in the reef than I saw marine life by orders of magnitude. That’s kinda messed up, right? Pretty sure I can live my life without a plastic cup or straw if I want to. Pretty sure also that the plants and animals being impacted by us trashing their home can only tolerate so much. Using your consumer power to not purchase plastics will help point our society away from plastics. You do it, your family starts doing it, your friends and neighbors, its spreads socially by our exemplifying and encouraging responsible stewardship from everyone. You could even really test yourself and try to be zero-waste for a period of time, that’s a good discussion piece to get people listening and looking at their own lifestyle habits around the trash we each produce. I challenge all of us, myself included, to rid our lives of plastics, is it even possible at this point?

This is what this blog is all about, in every piece that is shared: Infinite Volition, the endless potential of personal choice. I’m not here just regurgitating scientific data and results hoping that you can connect some dots and figure out where to go from there; I’m trying to pull at your heart strings, that part of you that knows intuitively how interconnected everything is. Our choices matter, they matter a lot! Is change going to happen overnight? Unfortunately, probably not, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. It’s like a rugby scrum (not that I know anything about rugby actually, and this is certainly the only time I’ve ever referenced it), the group works together to push the momentum in a certain direction. Change comes when we decide on it in our hearts, live it out ourselves and come together as a larger whole to push things in the right direction. It’s very easy to think that any one thing we might do as individuals doesn’t really have much of an impact, but what if all 7.6 billion of us humans saw that the other way around? It would have an impact, a big impact.

Unless…like Dr. Suess’ Lorax says, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not”.

Thank you for reading this post and considering both your contributions to this problem and the actions you will take to facilitate real and lasting solutions.

Here are a few online resources for reducing your plastics use:

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