Can Our Ocean Be Saved?
Throughout history, humans have singlehandedly been the most detrimental species on planet earth. The Industrial Age in the early eighteenth century presented the world with its first real look at Climate Change. While environmental scientists have predominantly focused their studies on the increasing temperature due to Carbon emissions, the world is now faced with another issue; the excess amount of plastics and microplastics in the ocean. “Humanity’s plastic footprint is probably more dangerous than its carbon footprint”(US Deparment 2016). Not only has this form of pollution harmed marine life, but it has begun to affect human life as well. The ocean provides people with resources and more than half of the planet’s oxygen but is treated as a worldwide trash bin. Currently, there is no solution to dealing with the issue of microplastic and plastic pollution, however many environmentalists continue to search for one. While the more progressive countries are attempting to cut down on their plastic use, the amount of plastic debris in the ocean would take hundreds, maybe thousands of years to clean up. The best action an individual can do to help this issue is to influence others to reduce their plastic use. If our society cannot stop using disposable plastic or prevent it from accumulating in marine habitats, microplastics will kill off millions of species living in the ocean, and humans will start to suffer from the effects of this form of pollution.
The use of plastic in human societies worldwide has a massive impact on all forms of marine life. The ocean is Earth’s largest ecosystem and supports all planet life. Marine life provides the human race with over a sixth of the animal protein people eat. If society cannot stop polluting the oceans’ ecosystems, this source of food will either become depleted or be too poisonous to eat. Microplastics are the biggest culprit in poisoning fish and other species in the ocean. This form of degraded plastic is defined as small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long (Cho 2011). The reason microplastics are so dangerous stems from their size, but more importantly their quantity. There are anywhere from 93,000 to 236,000 metric tons of these tiny particles floating in the ocean (Parker 2017). They have turned the ocean into what scientists often call a “plastic soup.” With such an abundance of this material, it’s no surprise that there is a severe impact on marine life. One of the biggest reasons that fish and other species consume microplastics and plastic, in general, is because they smell similar to food. When pieces of plastic enter their bodies, they are not able to properly digest it, which in most cases leads to death. Over 100 million marine animals are killed each year solely from plastic debris in the ocean (Sea 2018). While not all of these deaths directly stem from the ingestion of plastic, the number of microplastics entering the ocean will continue to increase this number if society does not change its ways. Unfortunately, plastic is difficult to dispose of properly, so this will likely be an issue for hundreds of years. If the human society does not stop using plastic, soon enough marine life will become completely inedible. On top of this, the animals that so many people claim to love will become much rarer or even extinct. Humans are artificial in this sense because while so many people share a sense of love for marine life and the ocean, their everyday habits show no sense of regard for protecting them. People’s use of plastic in society over the past hundred years has left hundreds of thousands of tons of microplastics in the ocean, and with no sign of stopping plastic production, it is only a matter of time before many species go extinct or are completely poisonous to eat.
Much of the ocean’s current plastic and microplastic pollution is a direct result of a variety of the world’s largest rivers. When researching the effect of plastics and microplastics on the Ocean’s ecosystem, the first question that comes to mind is; how does this debris enter the ocean, and where is it coming from? Often time’s plastics are directly placed into the ocean within countries that have less access to recycling programs, however, a large fraction of marine plastic debris comes from rivers and other water sources that transport all forms of debris into the ocean. Environmental researcher, Christian Schmidt, believes that ten major rivers in Asia and Africa transport 88-95% of the global load of plastic (Schmidt 2018). To give a more specific number, Environmental Science & Technology, show that rivers collectively dump anywhere from 0.47 million to 2.75 million metric tons of plastic into the seas every year (Patel 2018). People often think polluting rivers is less detrimental than directly dumping plastic waste into the ocean; however, rivers carry trash and connect nearly all land surfaces with various oceans across the world.
While this illustration gives a simplistic view of the actual pollution process, it is essential for people to realize how detrimental it can be when industrial buildings and other factories are built around major rivers and other water sources. Not only do these rivers take in a large portion of mismanaged plastic waste, but also in many cases they are polluted with chemicals and other toxic waste. China, having the largest population, as well as two of the world’s largest rivers (the Yellow River, and the Yangtze), is not surprisingly predominantly blamed for the oceans’ plastic crisis. While there is currently no solution to the issue of river plastic pollution, governments must enforce stricter regulation in populated areas near rivers. If Schmidt is correct in stating that majority of this plastic is coming from rivers, governments and citizens across the world must focus their efforts on preventing mismanaged plastic waste from entering rivers.
Microplastic ingestion from marine life has a greater effect on human beings than most of society realizes. When viewing the effects of plastic pollution, most people initially think of the numerous species that are harmed by this issue. The vast majority of the human society puts off being environmentally friendly, as they believe these issues have no effect on them. Especially with regards to recycling, most people don’t realize that plastic pollution is coming back to harm the very ones who started the issue. As more marine life ingest microplastics, more humans are exposed to these dangerous materials.
This image is a cycle that depicts not only how humans indirectly ingest plastic, but also how marine life and other animals do. When microplastics and other smaller forms of this debris either float to the bottom of the ocean or remain on the surface, small animals consume them. If the plastic filled animal isn’t killed initially, the animal might make its way up the food chain, eventually being consumed by either humans or other top predators. “A recent study by the University of Ghent in Belgium found human seafood eaters ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year with dozens of particles becoming embedded in tissues” (Knapton 2017) This is important for society to understand because while a lot of people believe that climate change and pollution is a problem for future generations, they are very wrong. If ingested in high enough quantities, scientists believe humans could face issues with fertility, poisoning, and genetic disruption (Knapton 2017). Heavy seafood eaters already have to be cautious about getting mercury poisoning from various species of fish, but not enough people realize they are likely consuming microplastics as well. It seems fitting in some aspects that the species, which is poisoning the ocean, is in turn poisoning itself. Unfortunately, this species is also destroying the ecosystem that harvests the most life and diversity on our planet. Currently, there are no reports of human casualties from ingesting microplastics, but as more plastic is dumped into the ocean, higher concentrations of these materials will be present in marine life. It is only a matter of time before humans begin to reap the effects of plastic ingestion, and while human illness or even death is something to be avoided at all cost, it might be the only idea that will create change in our society. Societies use of the ocean as a plastic trash bin has, in turn, led to human ingestion of microplastics from eating various species of marine animals.
Another question a lot of people have when researching microplastics and plastics is: where do these plastic go, and can we dispose of them? At this point in the paper, you hopefully understand that there is a lot of plastic in the ocean and that it is very dangerous. You also might be thinking, “I swim in the ocean all the time and never have seen evidence of the supposed hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste in the ocean.” There is a reason that most people haven’t first hand witnessed this mass pollution. Plastic is predominantly widespread in the open ocean, but it is particularly concentrated in five major gyres –rotating currents of water– in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans (Weule 2017). These gyres consist of concentrated microplastics as well as other tiny fragments. The picture below depicts an extremely small fraction of a gyre.
Some of the largest gyres in the world cover hundreds of kilometers of open water. Let that sink in. Hundreds of miles of ocean are essentially uninhabitable for marine life because the surface is covered with plastic. A large portion of the marine animals killed in the ocean originates from these gyres that form. Seagulls and other predators, which feed on fish, are affected by the gyres as well as they mistake the plastic and other surfaced debris as food. Another commonplace to find plastic is the coastline. “I think that that is something that people really don’t appreciate. The gyres may have a fair bit of plastic in them, but the coastal margin probably has much more”(Wuele 2017). The United States’ coasts are for the most part clean as people and various organizations opt to clean beaches in their local towns. Unfortunately, not all countries possess the same motives to clean their costs. Many towns in less affluent countries leave their plastic waste on the coastline hoping that the tide will take it out into the ocean. In countries such as Indonesia, this is very prevalent, as you will often time see large portions of plastic debris floating near the coast. This is similarly detrimental to marine life as well as other inland animals that consume the washed-up plastic. The sad reality of these places is that often times they simply do not have the resources to properly manage their waste. While beneficial in many ways for society, plastic is one of the hardest materials to dispose of, which is why it often ends up in the ocean. Especially in regions where you cannot recycle, plastics and even tiny microplastics take hundreds of years to decompose properly. The reasons they take so long to decompose stems from the strong carbon-carbon bonds that make up plastic (Wolchover 2011). “Nature doesn’t make things like that, so organisms have never seen that before”(Wolchover 2011). Kenneth Peters who is an organic geochemist believes that plastics take long to decompose because they are newly exposed to nature. The organisms that break down food and other materials such as wood have been evolving for billions of years, allowing them to be effective. Plastics have newly started affecting nature; therefore it will take a while before organisms are able to properly dispose of them. Sadly, the only action that would be more detrimental to the environment than polluting it with plastic would be burning it. People have often attempted to burn plastic in order to dispose of it for good, but this material lets off highly toxic chemicals, which can be detrimental to humans as well as the atmosphere. Similar to the other issues of pollution, the only solution would be to decrease plastic use, and attempt to fix the mess society has made in the last hundred years.
Planet Earth gifts humans and all other species around the world with endless beauty and nature, but time and time again society fails to treat it properly. Human nature has evolved over millions of years and is now filled with greed, and ignorance of the problems we are facing. Microplastics take hundreds of years to decompose and are some of the biggest issues for the environment in terms of marine and human impact, and yet most of the human society has made no intent to change its policies. Humans know that most plastic pollution originates from ten major rivers, and yet we do not stop polluting them. Images of gyres hundreds of miles wide flood world news and yet plastic straws are still served at restaurants. It is frightening that majority of the oceans’ plastic comes from regions that refuse to recycle even when they have the proper resources to do so. We live in a world filled with self-centered people, and industries that choose money over just about anything. Society has fooled us in this sense, twisting our priorities to focus solely on our own well-being. Even as I write this I realize I am not perfect. Plastic is difficult to avoid, and not everyone realizes how damaging the effects of microplastics are. I have spent much of my life in the ocean, and I intend to enjoy it for as long as I can. If we as a society cannot find alternatives to plastic, the ocean will no longer be a safe haven for millions of people worldwide. A world without an ocean and the diverse wildlife that inhabits it is not one that most people want to live in. “Many of us ask what can I, as one person, do, but history shows us that everything good and bad starts because somebody does something or does not do something”(Knight 2018). While an individual’s effort to not use plastic won’t have much effect on the environment, it’s their influence on others that creates change. The world is yours; what are you going to do with it?
Cho, Renee. “Our Oceans: A Plastic Soup.” State of the Planet, 24 Feb. 2011, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2011/01/26/our-oceans-a-plastic-soup/.
“Information About Sea Turtles: Threats from Marine Debris – Sea Turtle Conservancy.”Sea Turtle Conservancy, conserveturtles.org/information-sea- turtles-threats-marine-debris/.
Knapton, Sarah. “Fish Eat Plastic in the Ocean Because It Smells like Food, Scientists Discover.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 16 Aug. 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/08/15/fish-eat-plastic-ocean-smells- like-food-scientists-discover/.
Knight, J.D. “Ocean Conservation Quotes – Famous Sea Quotes on Sea and Sky.” Deep Sea Creatures on Sea and Sky, www.seasky.org/quotes/sea-quotes-ocean- conservation.html.
Parker, Laura. “Ocean Life Eats Tons of Plastic-Here’s Why That Matters.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 18 Aug. 2017, news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/ocean-life-eats-plastic-larvaceans- anchovy-environment/.
Patel, Prachi. “Stemming the Plastic Tide: 10 Rivers Contribute Most of the Plastic in the Oceans.” Scientific American, 1 Feb. 2018, www.scientificamerican.com/article/stemming-the-plastic-tide-10-rivers- contribute-most-of-the-plastic-in-the-oceans/.
Schmidt, Christian. “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea.” C&EN: WHAT’S THAT STUFF? JELL-O, pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b02368.
US Department of Commerce, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Are Microplastics?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 13 Apr. 2016, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html.
Weule, Genelle. “Plastic and How It Affects Our Oceans.” ABC News, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 27 Feb. 2017, www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-02-27/plastic-and-plastic-waste- explained/8301316.
Wolchover, Natalie. “Why Doesn’t Plastic Biodegrade?” LiveScience, Purch, 2 Mar. 2011, www.livescience.com/33085-petroleum-derived-plastic-non- biodegradable.html.
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