What happens when our oceans become landfills?
As the nation focuses on recent shark attacks that have shaken coastal communities, an even bigger problem is lurking in the water: the overwhelmingly large amount of trash that is harming both marine life and humans.
Some huge numbers have been reported to demonstrate the enormous impact that this pollution has on Mother Earth:
- 5.25 trillion: the number of pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans.
- 269,000 tons: the amount that floats on the surface.
- 4 billion: the number of plastic microfibers per square kilometer in the deep sea.
But perhaps the most effective number is 1.
A picture of one snapping turtle named Mae West recently made the Internet rounds when she was settled into a new home at the Star Eco Station in Culver City, CA. As a hatchling, Mae West walked into a plastic milk jug ring and couldn’t shake it. As she grew, her shell became deformed, giving her an hourglass shape.
Thousands of other marine animals like Mae West, including seabirds and whales, are suffering from the hazards of plastic pollution through choking, intestinal blockage and starvation. At least 267 species are affected, including 86% of sea turtle species, 44% of seabird species and 43% of marine mammal species.
The victims of plastic pollution
The harm of plastic doesn't stop in the ocean. Scientists are investigating the long-term effects of plastic pollution on human health from consuming toxic pollutants in fish and other marine life.
Oceanographer and chemist Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation says the chemicals in plastic can potentially cause cancer in humans.
Rolf Halden, associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University, says it is almost impossible to determine the exact health effects of plastic on humans because the contamination is global — there are almost no humans who have not been exposed.
Where does the trash come from?
Tony Haymet, former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told National Geographic in 2014 that the best way to keep plastic out of the ocean is to persuade people to stop littering — which may be easier said than done.
An estimated 80% of ocean plastic comes not from marine sources like discarded fishing equipment, but from beach litter that washes out to sea or is carried downstream in rivers, according to a three-year study by CSIRO, Australia's national science agency. About half of that litter is plastic bottles; most of the rest is packaging.
In order to eliminate the beach litter, lawmakers must trace back to the source of the trash: consumers. States and municipalities are turning to new legislation, such as plastic bag bans, to halt the destructive effects on the environment.
California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags. "This bill is a step in the right direction," said Gov. Jerry Brown when he signed the law last year. "It reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks, and even the vast ocean itself. We’re the first to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last."
The Container Recycling Institute favors bottle-deposit laws, which have been enacted in 10 states. Beverage makers oppose these laws, citing an increased cost of beverages. The CRI reports that states that have a bottle law recycle 490 containers per person, while states without a deposit recycle 191 containers per person.
Additionally, the U.S. State Department announced its Trash Free Waters program last year, which uses sustainable product design, material recovery, and reuse of materials to eliminate waste before it gets to the ocean.
But what about the trash that's already in the ocean?
Boyan Slat, 20, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, announced in May that his system to passively clean up plastic debris from oceans will be deployed in 2016, possibly off the coast of Tsushima, an island between Japan and South Korea.
His Ocean Cleanup Array uses solar panels and "arms" to direct plastics into a tube without harming ocean life. The machine costs an estimated $43 million a year.
The corporate interest of eliminating ocean debris
In order to make an impact on the ocean cleanup, several companies are working to create usable products from salvaged plastic.
German apparel maker Adidas has created a prototype for a sustainable shoe, making its upper from yarns and filaments reclaimed from illegal deep-sea gillnets and other ocean waste. The product is the first to come out of the company’s partnership with Parley for the Oceans.
The shoe is not yet for sale, but the company reportedly will begin using recycled plastic in its shoes by early next year.
Professional surfer Kelly Slater’s sustainable menswear label, Outerknown, has launched the Evolution Series of board shorts and jackets made from Econyl, a nylon yarn made from nylon waste including old fishing nets.
Even musicians have been investing in the cause. Last fall, Pharrell Williams launched G-Star’s RAW for the Oceans line of clothing that creates denim using what Williams has dubbed "Bionic Yarn," made from recovered ocean plastic.
"I have a connection with the ocean," Williams says on the product's website. "It yields so much life including our own. So we owe it."
So, what’s next?
More of the same, if humans do not change their habits.
In 10 years, the amount of plastic entering the oceans could double to an alarming 8 million tons. Efforts to remove it through technology and finding ways to reuse reclaimed plastic are exciting, but do not solve the problem entirely.
"It is not a question of either cleanup or prevention," says Slat. "It’s cleanup and prevention.”