Pollution is Ravaging our Oceans but Will Eliminating Plastic Straws Really Make a Difference?
The facts of ocean pollution: Where it comes from, where it is going and what you can do to help?
“It is one world, and it’s in our care,” said Sir David Attenborough, English broadcaster and natural historian. “For the first time in the history of humanity, for the first time in 500 million years, one species has the future in the palm of its hands. I just hope [we] realize that is the case.”
It’s estimated that 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastics every year. This has led to the speculation that by 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.
Ocean pollution has proven to be one of the most obscure issues we’ve faced in the 21st century. It’s happening — that’s for certain — we’re causing it — that’s true, but we have yet to face the repercussions of its ills. In a sense, it’s out of sight out of mind. In America, we don’t witness the mounds of plastic killing marine life while simultaneously ruining our climate. Which contradicts the idiom told to us by our parents, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
There are currently 79,000 metric tons of plastic in an area between the U.S. and Hawaii. The mass of debris is labeled the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This gyre is equivalent to 17.6 billion pounds of waste, according to the results published in the journal Scientific Report. The size of The Patch is roughly 1.6 million square kilometers, that’s roughly 4 times the size of Japan, over three times the size of California, or the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales.
This raises many questions, however, the most important question should be — where is the trash coming from and what can we do to subside this issue?
If you live in a metropolitan city chances are you’ve already had a beverage disrupted by a soggy paper straw. Though, many welcome this minor inconvenience if it means saving ocean turtles, it’s important to realize that this problem is much bigger than plastic straws.
What will the elimination of plastic straws do for the environment? “Probably nothing at all, given that so little of the plastic pollution in the ocean actually comes from the U.S.,” said Angela Logomasini, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “It might make some people in Hollywood feel good, it might make some politicians feel good — like they’re doing something — it might sound good at parties. But it’s not going to solve any problems.”
As you read this article, roughly 8.3 billion plastic straws are floating in our oceans, according to a study conducted by Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox, research scientists with CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. Though that number may sound staggering, that only accounts for .03% of the 8 million metric tons of plastic waste dumped into our oceans annually.
Currently, the top 10 items collected during ocean clean-ups are, in this order: cigarette butts, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, glass bottles, plastic bags, and foam [takeaway] containers, according to a global survey of beach cleanups conducted by the Ocean Conservancy. The survey reported that while 400,000 plastic straws were collected, over 1.8 million cigarette butts were found during the same period.
However, cigarette butts aren’t the main culprit. Of the, roughly, 174,165,000 lbs of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch nearly half of it is abandoned fishing gear. The Ocean Conservancy study found that 46 percent of debris is mostly fishing nets, with the majority of the rest comprised of eel traps, crates, baskets, and ropes — among other fishing equipment.
“I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46 percent was unexpectedly high,” said Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup, and the study’s lead author — in an interview with National Geographic. “Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20 percent range. That is the accepted number, for marine debris, globally.”
Scientists have estimated that 20 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exists due to the 2011 Japanese Tsunami that saw an uncountable number of objects swept into the ocean. Though, one natural disaster led to 20 percent of The Patch’s pollution Japan’s contribution to plastic pollution is superseded by China and Indonesia who, together, account for more than one-third of plastic waste in the world.
Upon a search of ocean debris, researchers collected over 380 items with words or sentences in nine different languages. Of the items collected, 50 of them had readable production dates. The oldest item found dates back to 1977 — seven of them from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s and 24 from the 2000s, with one being from 2010 — according to The Foresight Future of the Sea report, published by the UK’s Government Office for Science. This paints a clear picture that this is not a new problem. Our oceans have been ravaged with plastic pollution for decades, yet, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of the problem.
“The precipitous increase in plastic production and plastic consumption over the past seventy years has resulted in approximately 266,000 tons [538,000,000 lbs] of globally distributed plastic waste pollution, particularly in oceans, lakes, and other marine waterways,” according to Martindale-Hubbell.
Though the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the world’s largest, it’s only one of five trash islands, typically referred to as gyres — the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, and the Indian Ocean Gyre.
Viewing this issue in its entirety can be overwhelming and seem insurmountable. However, with the newfound awareness of this issue, many have devoted their lives to find a way to subside this problem.
Boyan Slat, a 23-year-old Dutch inventor, is now one of those devotees. At the age of 18, Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup which now has put forth a $32 million campaign in attempts to combat this problem.
Slat and The Ocean Cleanup has launched System 001/B, an ocean clean up system designed to accumulated plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Australians Peter Ceglinski and Andrew Turton, inventors of Seabin, have thrown their hat into the ring of environmentalists attempting to rid our oceans of plastic waste. The Seabin device is typically installed on a harbor or a dock and works by sucking in water trapping plastic waste in a mesh bag while recirculating water back into the environment, plastic-less. Seabins capture roughly 4304 lbs of plastic per day. There are currently 719 Seabins in over 26 countries, helping aide this issue.
There is a litany of additional inventions created to lend their hand in cleaning the oceans — like Mr. Trash Wheel, SeaVax, and Adrian Griffiths invention that turns plastic into oil by essentially melting it into a vapor.
Collecting and removing plastic from our oceans is the goal, but what happens to the plastic once it’s removed? Will it be recycled, repurposed, or put back into a landfill inevitably making its way back to the ocean?
I spoke with the Ocean Clean-up and they shared a few of their ideas to turn this trash into treasure. “The plastic will be recycled into our own durable, exclusive and high-margin goods, to help fund the expansion of our cleanup efforts to the other four gyres. Lower quality plastic will be turned into energy by thermal recycling.”
It’s tough to remain optimistic or pessimistic regarding this global issue. Yes, the level of ocean pollution that’s being discovered is horrendous. However, now that the problem is realized thousands of our brightest minds are on the job to help change the course of ocean pollution.
It’s important to remember, though much of the gyres show environmentalists how much plastic sits atop the ocean, most ocean trash sinks to the bottom. It’s what we can’t see that is feared to be much worse. 70 percent of ocean garbage sinks to the seabed, which may be where it will rest, forever.
Ways to help at home: Recycle, use reusable utensils — bottles and straws, donate to any of the organizations mentioned in this article. Assist the next generation combat this issue before this problem is too late.