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Plastics in the Ocean

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Plastics in the Oceans
We live in an increasing disposable world. Everything from food to electronics ends up in a landfill somewhere. We are always looking for newer and better products to replace what we already have. The consequences of this behavior are resulting in more and larger landfills, toxic water and a myriad of other problems. With our growing population and excessive consumption, the items we use everyday are becoming disposable so the garbage problem continues to expand exponentially. It is a readily accepted fact that plastics has made our lives both easier and safer, but, at the same time, has also left a damaging imprint on our environment and even our health. The waste management industry has done a very clever job of keeping the inner workings of landfill disposal cloaked in secrecy. As a result we give less and less thought to what actually happens to all the trash we throw away every day. Our culture of convenience is so dominant we do not even see the consequences of our actions. Journalist and filmmaker Heather Rogers, in her essay “The Hidden Life of Garbage” takes us on a journey of garbage disposal that most of us never think about once we take the trash to the curb. She explains one particular method that should give us all pause for thought: In new state-of-the-art landfills, the cells that contain the trash are built on top of what is called a “liner.” The liner is a giant underground bladder intended to prevent contamination of groundwater by collecting leachate-liquid wastes and the rainwater that seeps through buried trash and channeling it to nearby water treatment facilities. If this toxic stew contaminated the site’s groundwater it would be devastating. (190)
She goes on to explain that these liners are only expected to last only between thirty and fifty years which leaves us with a very disturbing image of these toxins in our drinking water. The practice of dumping trash, specifically plastics, into our oceans and waterways is disastrous to both humans and the environment and inevitably must be stopped. A primary culprit in our mounting trash problem is plastic. It is everywhere and in almost everything. From the plastic bags we carry our groceries in to the millions and millions of water bottles we drink from. Plastic has helped us to manufacture, package and ship goods more easily but unfortunately these same plastics are made of components that, when broken down, harm people and the environment. Plastic is increasingly being found in the oceans, seas, and rivers. Historically trash has always been tossed into the ocean but it has broken down in a fairly short time. The very qualities that make it an adaptable and durable product also make plastic an environmental nightmare. Oceanographer and author Charles J. Moore has recently brought worldwide attention to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” which is an area in the Pacific Ocean strewn with floating plastic debris twice the size of Texas. In his book “Plastic Ocean” he explains, “Unlike many discarded materials, most plastics in common use do not biograde. Instead they “photograde,” a process where sunlight breaks them into progressively smaller pieces”. (251), Research by Moore has shown that for the past fifty years plastics that have made their way into the Pacific Ocean have been fragmenting and accumulating as a kind of swirling sewer in the North Pacific subtropical gyre . It is imperative for all of us to understand the scope and magnitude of this issue and how it affects all life on earth. In Moore’s travels around the world researching this topic he has found that “plastic is like an invasive species. Once established, it doesn’t go away. This insidious debris represents man’s despoilment of the earths most pristine environment.” (254) There are basically two ways for plastic to enter our waterways. Marine researchers traditionally classify them as either land or ocean/waterway based, depending on where the debris enters the water. Land based debris comes from places such as parks, streets, public littering and illegal dumping of garbage. Ocean/waterway debris is generated by our activities at sea. It can come from fishing boats, cruise ships and even military and research vessels. How we dispose of our plastics can impact the environment for years to come. If you take a walk on almost any beach in the country you will find plastic debris such as cigarette lighters, diaper liners, milk jugs and plastic bags strewn up and down the shoreline litter. The actual statistics on the impact of plastics in our waterways are staggering. Here are just a few examples: Plastics comprise up to 90% of floating marine debris. It is estimated that Americans go through 100 billion plastic bags a year which is 360 bags per year for every, man, woman and child in the country Plastic bags have been found floating as far north as the Artic Circle and as far south as the Falkland Islands. An estimated 100,000 marine mammals and up to 1 million sea birds die every year after ingesting or being tangled in plastic marine litter. A study in 1975 showed oceangoing vessels together dumped 8 million pounds of plastic annually and that the real reason that the world’s landfills weren’t overflowing with plastic was because most of it ended up in the ocean. Author, journalist and environmentalist Alanna Mitchell, in her book “Invisible Plastic” illustrates the harm that plastics are doing to our wildlife and to us. “Plastic bottle caps and lighters are present in the bellies of dead albatross chicks, six-pack rings from beer cans are wrapped around strangled seal’s necks and shopping bags are vomited from the stomachs of sea turtles”. (119) We know that plastic by-products are being found in birds and fish in alarming amounts, so it only follows that the same by-products are entering our food chain. This should come as no surprise to anyone, but it does. According to the Marine Conservation Society, more than a million seabirds and 100,000 mammals and sea turtles die each year from entanglement in or ingestion of, plastic. We see the oceans as an unlimited resource but as trash accumulates, marine life will be endangered and as a result so will we. We justify our indiscriminate use of plastics by believing that if we recycle all will be forgiven. The fact remains that in the U.S only 8 percent of total plastic waste is recovered for recycling. Nobody really knows exactly what proportion of discarded plastic ends up in the ocean but it is becoming abundantly clear that should this situation go unchecked, we will all suffer the consequences of our inaction. Rogers explains that “lavish resources that are dedicated to destroying used commodities, and making them acceptable is what’s so astounding”. (190-191) Millions and millions of dollars are spent finding the latest technology to deal with the trash problem, but ultimately we must ask the question: What can we as individuals do? If left to the government and big business only a small part of the problem will be addressed. Business’s goal is making money and environmental issues are secondary. Government has given a good effort but is often stymied by special interests. Stiv Wilson, who is policy director for the 5 Gyres Institute points out in his article “7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic” that “The industry that produces plastic is largely represented by the American Chemistry Council and has a annual budget of over 20 million to protect its interests.” (AlterNet) As budgets are cut to regulatory agencies the industry goes largely unchecked. Ultimately, responsibility for the health of our environment must rest with the people. We must all be held accountable for our actions in contributing to this significant threat. That being said, there are countless ways we can make a difference. Many towns in Alaska, Colorado, North Carolina and California have banned the use of single use plastic bags. Small grass root organizations have sprung up all over the United States, trying to organize education and clean up efforts. The problem of plastics in our oceans and waterways is daunting. We are not going to stop using plastic, but we all need to put in the effort to keep it out of the water. As Margaret Meade said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Works Cited

Mitchell, Alanna. Invisible Plastic. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. Ed. Michael Cooke. Toronto. 2013. (119). Print
Moore, Charles, Capt., Cassandra Phillips. Plastic Ocean. New York: Penguin Group, 2011 251, 254. Print

Rogers, Heather. “The Hidden Life of Garbage” Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide 12th ed. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s 2012. 190,191. Print
Wilson, Stiv. “7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic.” AlterNet. AlterNet, n.d. Web 18 Feb. 201 www.alternet.org

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