Marine Plastics Pollution: The Cinderella of Global Issues
Marine plastics pollution is “a toxic time bomb.” – United Nations Environment Programme
“Plastic pollution of the marine environment is the Cinderella of global issues, garnering less attention than its ugly sisters climate change, acidification, fisheries, invasive species or food waste, but it has links to them all and merits greater attention by the scientific community.” – http://theconversation.com/in-the-ocean-the-most-harmful-plastic-is-too-small-to-see-35336
Like Diamonds, Plastics Last Forever!
Do you use or purchase plastic products? After they no longer serve their purpose at home, at work, or at play, what do you do with them?
Plastics tend to be inexpensive and long-lived, providing a cheap, convenient, and instantly gratifying product for all sorts of modern-day needs: water filtration, firearms and ammunition, appliances, medical and healthcare equipment, containers for food and drink, children’s toys, agricultural products, electronics, fibers and textiles, transportation, and more.
One of the most significant ecological problems is the improper disposal of plastic goods by consumers. Plastics trash often makes its way into coastal ecosystems and oceans, presenting a danger to marine life, mangrove forests, coral reefs, coastal birds, and other types of biodiversity.
Some plastics wash into the oceans from land, carried by rivers, floods, or storms, or they’re dumped by maritime vessels.
Once in the outside environment, plastics do not decompose but simply degrade into tiny polymer fragments through their exposure to sunlight and other environmental factors. Yet they remain plastic forever.
It’s hard to determine the long-term biological consequences of plastics pollution. For the short term, marine animals consume a lot of it. Toxic ocean pollutants such as DDT, PCBs, and mercury cling to the surface of floating fragments, each fragment acting like a miniature magnet, which then travel up the food chain to market species such as tuna or swordfish. These fragments can also attract pathogens and invasive species from around the world, transporting these organisms via oceanic currents into new regions of exploitation. Further, floating plastics can scrape away sensitive coral tissue, suffocate or strangle sea turtles, and poison young seabirds. But what will be the long-term consequences of all our plastics pollution? We simply do not know.
Some sad facts about marine plastics pollution:
- The number of marine mammals that die each year due to ingestion and entanglement approaches 100,000 in the North Pacific Ocean alone.
- Worldwide, 82 of 144 bird species examined in a study contained small plastics debris in their stomachs, and in many species the incidence of plastics ingestion exceeded 80% of the individuals.
- About 80% of marine plastic was initially discarded on land, and another 20% from oceanic discharge from cruise ships, military operations, and such.
- Currently, there is six times more plastic than plankton per weight floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It’s difficult to imagine life without plastics – a breathtaking range of synthetic, durable products that did not exist prior to the early 20th century. Globally, we produce almost 300 million tons of plastic every year, but most of it ends up in landfills, waste pits, and waterways.
Who’s responsible for the environmental consequences of plastics pollution? We all are responsible, of course: consumers and producers equally.
Companies that produce plastic products typically do not internalize the post-consumer costs associated with environmental cleanup. Consumers too often embrace an “out of sight, out of mind” lack of responsibility for their purchases. Governments and enforcement agencies exhibit all the vacillations of fickle political machinery. The marketplace views the environment as a “tragedy of the commons,” whereby individual users act according to their own self-interests, behave contrary to the common good, and deplete natural resources through their collective action.
Once we link human health to environmental health, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, then we may open the door to sustainable development.
A Case Study: A Tiny Remote Village with a Huge Global Problem!
Mahahual, a small fishing village in the Costa Maya Region in the State of Quintana Roo, is located next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and Xcalak National Reef Park : the major protected natural areas in the Mexican Caribbean.
High-density tourism and outdoor recreation are two principal economic drivers for the region.
Given the proximity of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System coincident with thousands of tourists and recreationists, Mahahual has tremendous significance for conservation in this part of the Western Hemisphere.
Unfortunately, the southeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula sits along the path of regional oceanic currents that act like an aquatic conveyor, carrying a steady stream of plastics garbage from the Caribbean, Central and South America, and elsewhere. The multiple origins of marine plastics pollution include land-based discharge, shipping, fishing boats, cruise ships, offshore military operations, and other sources: some intentional, some inadvertent. Mahahual then is the unwitting victim of mountains of plastics garbage from around the world.
Through the dedicated efforts of collaborating individuals, organizations, and agencies, HEEL Habilidades S.C. (México, D.F.) has sponsored a number of exemplary beach cleanups focused on the shorelines in and around Mahahual. For some of these cleanups, HEEL has brought together hundreds of volunteers from around the world and then amassed an on-site network of federal agencies, corporations, industries, educational institutions, foundations, social media, and private businesses to assist with the projects’ objectives.
- “An exquisite Mexico beach, cursed by plastic,” an informative article by Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Ellingwood.
- “Mahahual: Un paraiso no recyclable,” an engaging 2012 documentary from Calypso Films.
HEEL returned to Mahahual in June 2016 to conduct another beach assessment of marine plastics debris, this time with volunteer corporate executives from major Mexican companies such as Estée Lauder/La Mer, América Móvil, México Business Publishing, and others. The goals: To provide an on-site opportunity for corporate representatives to help clean a remote but ecological significant shoreline in México, and to discuss possible sustainable corporate responses to the environmental problem at hand. HEEL and its affiliates hope to clear the beaches of Mahahual of horrific marine debris and advance the coastal ecosystem to some level of sustainable development.
It’s a Matter of Choice and Caring!
If you are interested in becoming a part of this ongoing campaign in one of the world’s spectacular settings, please contact Bioquest Solutions LLC for more information.
Won’t you please help our campaign to remove plastics pollution from the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere? Your support as a sponsor or volunteer will help to protect the wildlife and the beaches, mangroves, lagoons, and reefs around Mahahaul. Your support will assist this tiny community deal with the huge impacts of tourism and recreation on its sensitive natural resources. Your support will also help to highlight Mahahual as a conservation model for other parts of the world with similar issues.
Like grains of sand on a beach, every dollar, every peso counts!
What Can We Do as Individuals? Lots!
Oceanographers and conservation biologists believe that the only way to contend with marine plastics pollution is to slow the amount of plastics flowing from land to the sea: the 4 R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle, and re-buy.
- Wean yourself off disposable plastics such as grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, and coffee-lid cups.
- Buy organic cotton shopping bags. Use them instead of the single-use plastic bags provided by supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants, and other vendors. Make it a habit to return those cotton shopping bags to your vehicle after unpacking your groceries.
- Use a travel mug when you purchase coffee at Starbucks.
- Stop buying water. If you’re nervous about local water quality, then purchase a reusable bottle with a built-in filter.
- Reuse your plastic water bottles. If you can refill one bottle for a day, why not use the same bottle for a week? The average American uses 167 disposable water bottles per year, but only recycles 38.
- Boycott plastic microbeads in facial scrubs, toothpastes, and body washes.
- Opt for products with natural exfoliants like oatmeal or salt.
- For example, the Estée Lauder Companies are in the process of removing exfoliating plastic beads in the small number of their products that contain them. They call this “the beauty of responsibility.”
- Cook more at home.
- For those times when you do order in or eat out, inform the restaurant that you do not want any plastic cutlery, plastic or Styrofoam food containers, or single-use plastic bags.
- Avoid purchase of new toys and electronic gadgets smothered in plastic packaging.
- Purchase items secondhand. Search the shelves of thrift stores, neighborhood garage sales, or online postings for your items.
- Less than 14% of plastic packaging is recycled.
- Check out the number on the bottom of the container. Most beverage bottles will be #1 (PET), commonly accepted by most curbside recycling companies. Containers marked with #2 (HDPE; bottles for milk, juice, and laundry detergent) and with #5 (PP; plastic cutlery, yogurt and margarine tubs, and ketchup bottles) are also recyclable in some areas.
- Support a plastic bag tax or ban.
- In 2009, North Carolina banned plastic bags for the Outer Banks region. However, in 2011, the state passed legislation to suspend the ban temporarily due to a tornado that hit Dunn, NC, a major distribution center for paper bags in the area. The ban has yet to be restored.
- To protect the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, the District’s Bag Law took effect on 1 January 2010. It requires all District businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge five cents for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag. Consequently, District businesses have seen a drastic reduction in bag usage, and environmental cleanup groups have witnessed fewer bags polluting DC waterways.
- In August 2014, California became the first state legislature to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. The ban took effect on 1 July 2014.
- In August 2015, Chicago banned plastic carryout bags.
- In October 2015, England became the last country in the United Kingdom to start charging for plastic bags. Campaigners argued successfully that plastic bags blight streets, spoil the countryside, and damage wildlife, seas, and coastlines.
- In January 2016, Walmart Canada began charging its customers five cents per bag requested as part of a new initiative to achieve zero waste.
- Nationwide, more than 150 cities and counties have implemented or will implement bans or fees in an attempt to reduce the estimated 100 million plastic bags used in the USA each year.
- Take your own garment bag to the dry cleaner.
- Invest in a zippered fabric bag and avoid stores that use PERC, a “likely human carcinogen” used by 85% of the dry cleaners in the United States.
- Reduce the amount of garbage generated at home and at work. Provide proper disposal for all pieces of fishing line, netting, cigarette butts, plastic bags and straws, and other litter.
- Get involved with beach cleanups. Volunteer and serve as an example to others.
- Put pressure on manufacturers.
- If you believe a company could be smarter with its packaging, then let the company hear from you: write a letter, send a tweet, or give your money to a more sustainable competitor.
- Let the beverage companies, fast-food restaurants, clothiers, corporations, and other manufacturers know when you find their discarded product wrappings in the environment and then demand that they take responsibility for the environmental impact of these discards. If you find a Coca-Cola bottle discarded on the beach or along the roadside, let Coca-Cola know about it.
 Wallace, N. 1985. Debris entanglement in the marine environment: A review. Pp. 259-277 in R.S. Shomura and H.O. Yoshida (eds.), Proceedings of the Workshop on the Fate and Impact of Marine Debris. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum, NMFS, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFC-54.
 Ryan, P.G. 1990. The effects of ingested plastic and other marine debris on seabirds. Pp. 623-634 in R.S. Shomura and M.L. Godfrey (eds.), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris, 2-7 April 1989, Honolulu, HI. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum. NMFS, MOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFC-154.
 http://www.heel.org.mx. HEEL is a conservation nonprofit organization based in México City and an international partner of Bioquest Solutions. Dr. H. Bruce Rinker, founder and owner of Bioquest Solutions, is the scientific advisor for HEEL.