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Our Plastic Problem: Plastics in Marine Life and Beyond

By 3p Contributor

By David Evans

Plastics have been permeating our life for some time now.

In the last 70 years production of plastic has grown from 50 million metric tons to over 300 million metric tons per year.

Plastics are in our grocery stores, our restaurants, our toiletries, toys, furniture, clothes – you name it. Plastic is everywhere, and it impacts the environment and human health in many ways. As a result, ocean pollution is escalating, and we are beginning to see those effects in our water, on land, and in our food supply.

As production and consumption of plastic materials increases, so does the struggle for proper disposal. We have already seen the effects of our mass consumption, but projections suggest this is just the tip of the iceberg.

From Sea to Sea

Marine debris - plastics, metals, glass, and other solid waste materials that enter the ocean environment - can be found virtually everywhere in the ocean. 60 to 95 percent of it is plastic.

UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis estimates that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in our oceans each year.

Where is all of this marine debris coming from?

  • 80% is coming from land-based sources like trash and urban run-off

  • 20% is coming from overboard discharges and discarded fishing gear

Regardless of the source, marine debris is becoming a harmful and dangerous predator to those who call the ocean home.

Effects on Marine Life

Marine plastic pollution has effected over 267 species worldwide as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.

The evidence of the plastic’s impact on marine life is ever mounting:

  • It is expected that there will soon be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

  • Fifty to 80 percent of all sea turtles found dead have ingested some form of plastic.

  • Seabirds are beginning to unintentionally feed their chicks plastic, mistaking it for food, and one study found that 98% of the chicks sampled had ingested some form of plastic.

  • There are several accounts of various whale species found dead after plastic consumption, such as in 2002 when a Minke whale was found with 800 kg of plastic bags in its stomach or in 2004 when a Cuviers Beaked whale was found with tightly packed black plastic bags blocking the entrance to its stomach.

We can see firsthand how plastic pollution is affecting the diet and consumption patterns of marine animals. What we can’t see as clearly yet is how those consumption patterns are being transferred up the food chain to the humans who consume them.

How will plastic pollution impact humans, as we rely on our oceans as a primary food source?

You are What You Eat

The obvious point is that along with overfishing, pollution is contributing to the decimation of fish stocks. Any further pressure on fish populations is likely to lead to a collapse, resulting in a shortage of food for humans

Just as concerning, however, is how the existing seafood we are consuming now might be impacting our physical wellbeing.

We tend to think that marine debris is unsightly but ultimately not a direct threat to our health. Now we are starting to realize the connection between plastic debris, water quality, and seafood quality.

Plastics are now proven to soak up and absorb pollutants containing chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), Ps oligomer, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and even DDT. These toxins are released both in the ocean and in the marine animals who consume them. They are known to cause liver problems, hormonal disruption, immune system problems, and childhood development issues.

Recent studies have found that more than a quarter of all fish now contain plastic, including those that we consume as seafood.

We already know elements like mercury can build their way up the food chain and it is an existing concern for large fish such as tuna. Plastics and plastic related chemicals are no different.

While no studies have proven or disproven the effects of plastic consumption on humans, it is becoming more and more apparent that humans are consuming plastic through their food. The question merely lies in whether, or how, it is affecting our bodies for the long term.

Stemming the Tide

Restoring the ocean could feed 1 Billion people a healthy seafood meal every day. Our personal actions are a key driver of whether we will be able to achieve restoration, or fall short.

We need to begin making global changes about how we produce, use, and dispose of plastic materials, and quickly. Though this may seem overwhelming, there are several things that can be done on the individual and local level.

Most of the plastic pollution in oceans stems from what we use on land and in our daily lives. By changing your consumption patterns, you can make a difference in the accumulation of wastes on land and sea.

Single use bags, cups, and bottles are the biggest offenders. Try to find goods without plastic packaging, reduce your plastic bag use, and take your own cup to Starbucks.

Another way to enact change is through education. Education and spreading awareness is the foundation for change. Tell your friends, family, and neighbors about the current state of the oceans and therefore their food and health.

David Evans is the founder of prch, a resource for eco-minded consumers. He is a minimalist, environmentalist, and conscious consumer with a background in environmental studies, conservation, and tech. Learn to improve your environmental and social impact @theprch.

Photo: 1) miwa.eu

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