For many Americans, Labor Day Weekend is traditionally the last one for a romp in oceans. Plastic should be on their minds.
Study after study shows that we have a real plastic problem in our oceans.
The Pacific Ocean garbage patch is a fairly well known. But I suspect most people's image of it is not quite correct. While some news reports and websites have given the impression that it's one big landfill (sic) swirling in the middle of the ocean (see here and here), truth is that it's much more diffuse. Much of it is tiny fragments of plastic that have broken down into very small pieces but not completely. And while that might seem to be better than a big landfill, it's not. Why? Because it's tiny, it can't just be scooped up or contained. Also it doesn't ever completely degrade. Here's how NOAA explains it:
"Plastics will degrade into small pieces until you can't see them anymore (so small you'd need a microscope or better!). Because the ocean is a cold, dark place, this process happens slower in water than on land. But, do plastics fully "go away?" Full degradation into carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic molecules is called mineralization. Most commonly used plastics do not mineralize (or go away) in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. We call these pieces "microplastics" if they are less than 5mm long."
And these little fragments circulate for decades on decades, poisoning our environment and endangering the health of wildlife as well as, some studies show, human health.
In February, nine scientists wrote an appeal in the journal Nature to reclassify many of the plastics that fill our lives as hazardous.
They argued that "the chemical ingredients of more than 50% of plastics are hazardous. Studies investigating, for instance, the transfer of additives in polyvinylchloride (PVC) from medical supplies to humans indicate that these chemicals can accumulate in the blood. In laboratory tests, monomers and other ingredients of PVC, polystyrene, polyurethane and polycarbonate can be carcinogenic and can affect organisms in a similar way to the hormone oestrogen."
What to Do
This is a problem that actually has a pretty straightforward solution, one that requires that we change how we do things, but there's really not much sacrifice involved. We just need to use less plastic. Most egregious are single-use, throwaway plastics that have a lifespan of minutes. Stop using that stuff and we stanch a lot of the flow of plastic into our oceans.
As Nick Mallos, Nicholas School graduate and conservation biologist for Ocean Conservancy* puts it, "At its core ocean trash is not an ocean problem, it's a people problem. That means we are the solution."
Check out Nick's six steps to a cleaner ocean.
So this Labor Day the watchword is "DEPLACTICIZE."
Note: Nick wanted to let folks know that Ocean Conservancy is having its annual International Coastal Cleanup on September 21. (Sign up here.) It"s an event they've held since 1986, in which volunteers from around the globe head to nearby beaches to clean them up. In 2012, more than half a million people collected more than 10 million pounds of trash.