Did you know that there are more islands on the earth than there used to be? But don’t get excited. These aren’t islands with palm trees, mangroves, and beautiful jungle trails, where you can book a tropical vacation to, but islands of plastic. Plastic is one of the great polluters of the earth’s oceans, with islands of it that you can actually walk on.
And while plastic is floating in our ocean, we are drowning in it on land, because most businesses don’t give us the option go without plastic. From bottles, wrappings, parts of shoes, toys, toothbrushes, disposable cups and plates, six rings, and to the cheap toys you get in cereal boxes and in kid’s meals, a great many items are made out of plastic. It’s the single-use items that cause the biggest problems. Sure, a lot of single-use plastic can be recycled, which I recommend, but a lot of it ends up getting thrown into the trash. Then, much of, instead of ending up in a landfill, which is bad enough (but that’s a story for another time), runs down our rivers or gets blown by the wind into our oceans, which in time forms islands from it. In fact, according to the Natural History Museum, located in London, England, every year 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean. Out in big blue waters, marine life suffers, from the smallest fish to the biggest whales.
Speaking of whales, one young whale was found dead with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Forget about harpooning a whale. I could see Captain Ahab, from the novel Moby Dick, glimpsing the white whale from his ship, and calling Stub and Starbuck over. As they rush to him with harpoons, Ahab says, “Confound ye and yer blasted harpoons! We’ll choke the monstrous serpent with plastic.” Then they dump vast amounts of it in the white whale’s feeding grounds to die slowly on, if plastic had of been around in the 19th century.
Since plastic takes a long time to photodegrade, this causes loads of problems. Plastic sticks around like that bad in-law or that deadbeat roommate you can’t get rid of, except in this case this problem sticks around forever. To illustrate with a couple of examples from Futurism, when it comes to photodegrading, plastic bags take 10-20 years (although other sources say it can be over a hundred), beverage holders 400 years, plastic bottles 450 years, and fishing lines 600 years. These items will be around long after we are gone, killing sea life and polluting the beaches that we like to surf on or their coasts that we like to walk along during gold and red sunset.
This goes without saying that if plastic kills huge whales, it also kills the smaller wildlife, including wildlife that is dependent on the waters. Sea-birds (and land birds for that matter) with six rings choking them tight around their necks are another harrowing picture of the problems that plastic causes. And if it can kill other wildlife, what does that mean for us? In other words, we have a problem.
Since this isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight, I recommend beginning steps in gradually eliminating three single-use plastic items, as well as going over the problems they cause. Bottled water, plastic bags, plastic drinking and straws are what I call the big three.
The Big Three
Let’s first take a look at bottled water. Years ago people laughed at the idea of buying bottled water, and why not? Doesn’t it seem silly? I remember when I was a kid, the very idea of bottled water seemed absurd. Why buy bottled water when you can just get it for free from the tap? I wish we still had that mentality.
Just three years ago, the Guardian reported that a million bottles of water are purchased, not every month, not every week, not every day, and not every hour, but every minute, and this growth, like the growth of the plastic islands in the ocean, is predicted to jump 20% in 2021. It’s a sobering thought to realize that 2021 is now only a year away. Back in 2012, during a volunteer cleanup with the International Coastal Cleanup, 1,065,171 bottles were found, some of which were certainly plastic.
And while plastic bottles do a lot of damage to the ocean, bottled water also causes other problems with other water sources. As a Floridian I worry about our springs. Nestle have had their sights on Florida springs, their eyes thirsty for dollar signs, as they want to pump out springs that are already low. This is unfortunate, considering that the crystal-clear blue springs are like real fountains of youth, teaming with an ecosystem of fish, freshwater turtles, manatees, and other life that swimmers, snorkelers, and divers can observe. The idea of the springs being depleted to bottle water in plastic that will end up in the ocean is cruel on many accounts.
There is a case of a seal who was suffocating from a plastic bag. This may sound surprising, but what happened to the seal is common, as many marine animals mistake plastic for food. Take sea turtles for instance. Sea turtles can easily mistake plastic bags floating gently in the water for jellyfish, a part of their diet. Plastic bags can starve sea turtles as it blocks their digestive tracts, much like what happened to the whale.
Ironically, our plastic bags don’t just hurt marine life but us at the same time. Many fish eat plastic bags and other forms of plastic because it has been discovered that to them the plastic smells like food. Frankly, I adore seafood. I don’t want microscopic particles of plastic to ruin my fish and chips dinner. But as things stand, this is a lose-lose situation for both fish and people.
A year ago National Geographic reported that according to some estimates 500 million straws are used daily in the US. This is no surprise, as they hardly make it to the recycling bin. And in the waters, they end up in lots of place, such as in a poor sea turtles nose off the coast of Costa Rica. Thankfully, some marine biologists were able to remove it. I can’t help but think about customers who complain about how much it sucks not to have plastic straws to suck down their beverage, but our dependency on straws sucks more for the aquatic life that they harm.
Have No Fear, Alternatives are Here
Stressed out? Don’t be. There are many other options.
You like to sip out of a straw when you drink? Well, they have paper straws now. If paper straws are too soggy, there are reusable metal straws.
As for bags, why be so hooked on plastic bags, especially when we go grocery shopping, when they destroy the earth and kill wildlife? If that’s not incentive enough, there is the worry of the plastic bags ripping and spilling your groceries. Cloth bags are the logical solution. They are durable, they are study, and they hold more than plastic. Think of them as super bags.
If this isn’t a convincing enough argument then how about using cloth in terms of style? Plastic bags are boring. But cloth bags can have fun designs of shapes and neon colors on them, as well as cartoon characters, photos of locations from around the world, or great works of art. These bags scream personality as you walk around the store.
As for plastic bottles, I get it. Everyone has to drink. But instead of using plastic bottles that contribute to the clogging of our waterways and oceans, why not use a canteen or a thick reusable water bottle? Also, I don’t know about you, but I hate spending more money than I have to. If I can find a way to save money then I’m going to do so. Think about how much money you spend and how it all adds up with bottled water. With a canteen or reusable water bottle, you can save money.
If you’re worried about tap water quality, then there are always water filters you can buy for your sink for a very reasonable price. These water filters will also help prevent the draining of spring water, particularly in Florida where I live, where people love to swim, snorkel, and dive in these crystal clear blue-springs teaming with an eco-system of wildlife.
I get that it’s hard to completely eliminate single-use plastic. With how rampant plastic is, utterly forsaking it can be a herculean effort. But don’t get discouraged. Do what you can do. It really doesn’t take a few people doing everything perfectly, but rather everyone doing the best that they can, when it comes to minimizing plastic waste.
I understand that right now it’s almost impossible to forego plastic as most products, such as microwave dinners and other food items from grocery stores, as well as books and other products you order online, may come sealed in plastic. Also, it’s no secret that plastic is used for the casing on video game consoles, TVs, and DVDs. The key is to stop the production of single-use plastics. If we all work together, we can figure it out and get rid of those plastic islands that are polluting the ocean, our beaches, and our bodies.
The Palm Beach County chapter of Surfrider Foundation would like to thank Jonathan Griffin for contributing this article to our fight against single-use plastics.