A new report from UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment and UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability states, “Plastic litter is one of the most significant problems facing the world’s marine environments. Yet in the absence of a coordinated global strategy, an estimated 20 million tons of plastic litter enter the ocean each year.”
In the last decade, that would equal about 200 million tons of plastic. Add another decade, and another, and another, and before we even considered the impact of plastic waste and viewed our oceans as convenient trash dumps, humans created a salty stairway to a plastisphere—an ecosystem that thrives on the large expanses of plastics in the oceans. It’s a microbe community of bacteria, algae, and other single-celled organisms. Attracted to the plastic debris, these organisms colonize plastic and other objects floating in water. This is a natural behavior for anything floating in the sea. But the skull and crossbones flag raises when we discover the toxic effect of this seemingly endless floating plastic mass—some of which may include your grandmother’s nylon stockings from World War II, or the first plastic bottles from 1947, to the explosive growth of HDPE (high density polyethylene) containers for retail products in the early 1960s. Probably broken into tiny specks of microplastics, the plastisphere colony attracts toxic and deadly—including cholera-like—bacteria.
Do you like your fish grilled or fried? Either way, there’s a likely portion of consumed plastic in that finned meal. Your fish probably gobbled some of the floating plastics thinking it easy game, or while it dined on something lower on the food chain, that unfortunate low-level creature surely added plastic to its diet.
Laysan albatross demonstrate the abundance of plastic as food. When 42 percent of Laysan albatross chicks die from plastic ingestion, and 97.5 percent of Laysan albatross chicks have plastics in their stomachs—especially when their habitat is far from civilization, well, we have a challenge.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports, “Scientists estimate that around the world, up to one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating plastic.”
Yes, I’m militant (to a point) about plastic in my home. Regardless of my efforts, a flotsam of HDPE containers, plastic bags, and wrappers still lands on my kitchen counters. Even the good intent of saving my freezer goods during a recent long-term power outage resulted in plastic baggies filled with ice and stuffed into the freezer. Now I look at that partially used box of plastic that may become part of the annual 20 million pounds of ocean-bound plastic when it escapes the trash container during a windstorm.
Recently, a group of people gathered on a Cambria ocean bluff. They held hands and released a gaggle of red heart-shaped helium-filled balloons that floated over the sea at sunset. How romantic. And how stupid. Did they think these plastic balloons would float up to a heavenly cherub choir? Did they forget the basic principle of what goes up must come down?
Balloons take years to break down. According to the website Balloons Blow, “[We found balloons] wrapped around a dead pelican’s beak, starving it to death, entangling a baby sea turtle, killing it before it even reached the water and a threat to any predator that dare tries to make use of the body. … The balloons are mistaken for colorful foliage or take the shape of a jellyfish—a food source for many creatures.”
Let’s think about the amount of plastic in toys that we might buy this holiday season. What will be the product’s end? Will it help feed a fish? Let’s remember to order our cuts of meat and deli product wrapped in butcher paper. Let’s remember to use personal stainless steel water containers. Let’s find cosmetics and other products in glass, metal, or cardboard containers instead of plastic. It’s not easy. But every mindful move matters.
It may be too late to end the stairway to plastisphere in our oceans, but we can reduce the impact just one product at a time, especially for those one-use plastic products.
Charmaine Coimbra lives in Cambria and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.