Plastics Will Outweigh Fish in The Ocean:
How Does It Affect You and What Should You Do?
Today, plastic constitutes approximately 90% of all trash floating on the ocean's surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile, and at the current accumulation rate, plastics are expected to outweigh fish by 2050.
Did you know that the ocean produces up to 85% of the oxygen we breathe? Indeed, in every breath you take, there is a bit of the ocean. But plastic pollution threatens to destroy this life-sustaining balance.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, about 150 million metric tons of plastic already circulate in our marine environment, and an estimated 12.7 million metric tons add up to that number each year.
These synthetic molecules have already invaded our oceans, just like the everyday chemicals harming coral reefs, that’s a fact (see reef safe sunscreen). What is more shrouded in mystery is the way this plastic invasion is affecting our daily lives.
According to the University of British Columbia, the world’s oceans are now home to about 437 million tons of fish; however, this number is decreasing at an alarming rate due to multiple factors including global warming and destructive fishing operations.
At the current accumulation rate, plastics are expected to outweigh fish by 2050.
This is more than bad news. It’s an ecological crisis that threatens to affect life at large, including human lives.
What Is The Plastic Problem?
We all know we’re surrounded in plastic, but many of us fail to understand the implications of this issue.
The truth is that almost everything nowadays contains plastic, from single-use packaging to consumer goods, clothing, automotive parts, and even cosmetic products.
Much of this plastic ends up in our seas and oceans where it disintegrates into microscopic particles. But even if it breaks down into tiny bits, plastic never biodegrades. Due to its non-biodegradable nature, all plastic that has ever been produced throughout history still exists and fills up each square mile of ocean.
With the fossil fuel industry expected to increase plastic production in the next decade, global plastic pollution is becoming epidemic.
All marine and many terrestrial species are threatened, and along with them our economy and well-being too.
How Does Plastics Affect The Ocean Ecosystems?
According to Plastics Europe, we produce about 335 million metric tons of plastic each year, half of which in the form of single-use plastics such as disposable plates and cutlery, straws, and water bottles.
Only about 9% of this plastic is recycled on average globally, but according to a study conducted by Science Advanced in 2017, recycling only delays the final disposal of an item.
With this in mind, all plastics produced will eventually be discarded, and a good part of them will end up in our oceans.
Large-scale evidence of plastic pollution includes an array of animals found dead on the shores of our seas and oceans.
Examples abound, from a grey whale found dead near Seattle in 2010 with over 20 plastic bags and other trash in its stomach to a seal pup found dead on the Island of Skye with pieces of plastic wrapper in its intestine to a dead albatross found on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean with plastic debris including bottle caps and a lighter in its stomach.
According to the United Nations, marine debris affects at least 800 marine species worldwide.
Fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, seabirds, but also microscopic marine organisms responsible for sustaining life in the ocean and on earth can become entangled or ingest plastic debris which can cause suffocation or death through starvation.
Humans are not immune to the threat. As plastic breaks down in tiny particles, it can end up in the seafood we eat, ultimately affecting our health.
To understand how this issue affects life on earth, we must first understand what the effects of plastic accumulation in the ocean are.
1. Alteration of the Marine Environment
The first effect of plastic pollution that can be observed is a strong alteration of the marine environment. According to research, several marine species including the blue whale, fin whale, sea lions, and various species of sea turtles, are on the verge of extinction due to plastic pollution.
This happens because plastic jeopardizes the natural marine ambiance, disrupting the bio-geological cycle, and threatening the existence of the whole marine ecosystem.
Some effects are more visible in areas where oceanic currents, particularly gyres, concentrate the plastic in specific areas of the ocean.
This is the case of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located off the coast of California. Research says this is the largest ocean garbage site in the world; an accumulation of debris almost twice the size of Texas.
While this is the largest and most famous garbage patch, there are other similar accumulations in the ocean. Some ways in which they affect the ecosystem include:
- Entanglement: Caused majorly by lost fishing nets as well as other large plastic debris. These “ghost” nets can wrap around and trap marine animals, entangling them. Larger species like marine mammals, large fish, and sea turtles are the most endangered by ghost fishing.
- Ingestion: Many animals may mistakenly eat plastic debris which can not only tangle their stomach or intestine but can lead to death through starvation by stopping the animals from eating real food. This could affect an array of wildlife, from seabirds to fish and even microscopic marine animals.
- Invasion of non-native species: Many marine species including algae, crabs, and barnacles, can attach themselves to the debris and drift across the ocean with the currents. Some of these species may be invasive and can establish themselves in a new environment, overcrowding the native species, and disrupting the ecosystem.
2. Ocean Garbage Patches' Impact On Human Health
Preliminary studies show clearly that the garbage in the ocean can be detrimental to our health - there is a significant correlation between cardiovascular disease and urine BPA levels. An accumulation of BPA in the body can also trigger type 2 diabetes.
While you might be tempted to believe that plastics pollution can only affect marine life, studies suggest these garbage patches can have a direct negative impact on human health too.
Indeed, microplastics – tiny plastic particles with a dimension of 5mm or less – have been found in some of the most important species that contribute to global fishery. This discovery poses a serious food safety concern, majorly because of the potentially toxic effects of plastics.
In fact, some plastic monomers are already known to be toxic or carcinogenic if ingested. Some plastic additives are also believed to be endocrine disrupters.
Preliminary research on the effects of microplastics on human health evidenced the possible toxicological effects and alteration of our immune response.
Some concerning impacts include an enhanced inflammatory response, disruption of the gut microbe, as well as plastic related toxicity.
Research has also demonstrated that there is a significant correlation between cardiovascular disease and urine BPA levels. An accumulation of BPA in the body can also trigger type 2 diabetes.
Further research is needed to assess the risks of dietary exposure, but these preliminary studies show clearly that the garbage in the ocean can be detrimental to our health.
3. Reduction of Atmospheric Oxygen Levels
Perhaps the greatest impact ocean plastics pollution has at a global scale is the reduction of the atmospheric oxygen levels.
In fact, the ocean is responsible for producing between 50 and 85% of the atmospheric oxygen through the photosynthetic action of phytoplankton and marine bacteria called Prochlorococcus.
In a study published in Communication Biology, researchers from the Macquarie University in Australia showed that exposure to plastic determines genetic alterations in the Prochlorococcus bacteria, causing it to produce less oxygen.
Phytoplankton, on the other hand, are microorganisms that live in both salt and fresh water. Like all plants, they turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, expelling the vital gas into the atmosphere.
Some species of phytoplankton include algae, dinoflagellates, and armor-plated coccolithophores.
While all phytoplankton photosynthesizes, some species also consume other microorganisms.
Microplastic can be mistakenly consumed instead of these microorganisms, or phytoplankton could ingest it as a result of consuming microscopic organisms which have previously consumed plastic microparticles.
Plastics could also affect phytoplankton’s ability to produce oxygen indirectly.
In fact, zooplankton and other marine organisms may feed on plastic, causing the death of many animals. This causes the acidification of the marine waters, altering the marine environment and subsequently causing the death of phytoplankton.
All these causes combined may lead to an important reduction of our atmospheric oxygen.
What Can You Do About It?
Reducing plastic waste and keeping our oceans clean is the least we can do to prevent catastrophic consequences. Here are three easy steps to manage the plastic problem.
Reduce Plastic Use
The most obvious solution. By reducing plastic use, we can limit the number of plastics ending up in our waters. However, this is easier said than done.
There are several ways to reduce plastic use, including government legislation, manufacturers using alternative products, and individual changes.
While changing our habits may be hard, governmental incentives could help. For instance, a plastic bag tax introduced in Europe has reduced the non-biodegradable plastic bag use by about 90%.
Organizations and individuals also engaged in numerous campaigns to reduce the use of plastic water bottles and straws, especially on the beaches. However, stopping plastic use at source is the easiest way to reduce its presence.
For instance, the United States and the United Kingdom are the first states that have banned the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products that consumers rinse off, such as the toothpaste. While it may seem little, it’s definitely a great start to fighting plastics pollution.
Furthermore, the emergence of alternatives to plastic for some common items can also reduce the use of plastic. For example, many companies now produce biodegradable and compostable disposable plates, cups, and cutlery, biodegradable shopping bags, and the list could go on and on.
At an individual level, you can follow the tips below to reduce your plastic waste:
1. Use reusable coffee cups and water bottles
Our daily coffee is a staple, but did you know that less than 1% of the disposable coffee cups can be recycled? To minimize waste, many coffee outlets now offer discounts when you bring your own cup to the shop. Some even sell reusable, eco-friendly options if you want to show off the brand. The same goes for water. Instead of drinking bottled water, buy a reusable glass or metal water flask, and refill it from the tap.
2. Give up plastic cutlery
It is estimated that an individual utilizes about 466 items of unnecessary plastic each year. Changing plastic cutlery with a biodegradable, compostable, or reusable alternative could have a huge impact in reducing plastic waste. Some manufacturers even produce edible plastic cutlery that you or the wildlife can consume.
3. Give up plastic straws
Just like plastic cutlery, plastic straws are an unnecessary item. You don’t need one to drink your soda or cocktail. Many activists even claim that governments should ban the use of plastic straws unless they are absolutely necessary (such as utilizing one for medical reasons). If you really need a straw with your drink, opt for a compostable or reusable item.
4. Give up chewing gum
Gum is not healthy for you and is potentially harmful to the environment. To begin with, chewing gum is made of plastic. Once disposed of, birds or aquatic species may believe it’s a piece of food and eat it. Luckily for those who have to chew something throughout the day, there are also plastic-free alternatives. These are potentially harmful to the environment, too, so you should limit their consumption anyway.
5. Give up the cling film
Cling wrap is often used to pack lunch or snacks. However, this material is not recyclable nor biodegradable. Instead of cling film, you could use foil, which is recyclable. Some eco-friendly alternatives include beeswax wraps made from cotton, beeswax, and other natural substances. Fully natural and environmentally friendly, they are a sustainable alternative to the common cling film.
6. Choose plastic-free teabags
Or give them up altogether. Indeed, regular teabags are sealed with plastic, which ultimately leads to microplastics accumulating into the ocean. However, you could use loose leaf tea or a plastic-free teabag to enjoy your hot drink while remaining eco-conscious.
7. Use biodegradable glitter
Beloved especially by kids; glitter is present at most parties. However, it’s made of tiny plastic particles which could end up in our food chain.
8. Opt for glass milk bottles
We know, it’s easier to grab a pint of milk packed in a plastic bottle instead of going for a glass bottle. Anyway, some shops sell milk in glass bottles while some producers may even deliver them to your home.
9. Choose your wine wisely
If you like to drink wine, ditch the plastic stopper or metal screw cap bottles. Go for wines with natural cork stoppers. Beyond the absence of plastic and ecological considerations, all wineries that respect themselves will cork their wine with a natural cork stopper. In other words, you might struggle a little to open up the bottle, but the wine inside it is higher quality and the cap will not end up polluting the ocean.
Help Clean The Trash
Since our oceans and beaches are already drowned in plastics, volunteering in social actions to clean the garbage is another important thing to do.
You could start small, by simply gathering and disposing properly of your own plastic waste.
Apps, such as Litterati or Marine Debris Tracker can also turn plastic gathering into a game and stimulate more and more people to pick up trash and dispose of it properly.
Governmental actions, such as Baltimore’s two googly-eyed machines designed to collect trash have already removed a million tons of trash from Maryland’s harbor waters. Similar concepts are also tested in Australia.
Companies also get more and more involved in the management and gathering of plastic ocean waste.
Reuse and Recycle
While plastic never biodegrades, reusing, and recycling it could reduce the plastic problem, at least until we find better waste management solutions.
Indeed, from solid plastic bottles and containers to reusable shopping bags made from plastic, there are many items you can buy and reuse for decades. Most of these products are BPA-free, so they are also safe to use by children.
Many companies have also started to get involved in the recycling process. Unifi, for example, is a clothes manufacturer that turns plastic bottles into yarn. Adidas followed suit, launching a line of running shoes made out of recycled plastic.
These examples show that there is hope in stopping – or at least limiting – plastic pollution, so we can save our planet.
With plastics threatening to outweigh the fish in the ocean, the situation can easily get out of hand and result in a catastrophe. Gathering all garbage from the waters is hard, but all it takes is a small behavioral change to reduce the accumulation of waste.
The future of this planet, the wellbeing of our wildlife, and ultimately our wellbeing as a species is in our hands.
Whether you decide to use less plastic items or not is down to you, but remember that using plastics and disposing of them improperly could mean much more than a dead fish or seagull. It could potentially mean our extinction.