Bags, bottles, buckets, lids, containers, cups, cutlery – single-use and disposable plastic products are ubiquitous. We may think plastic is a wonderful invention, because many of the products we use and rely on in our everyday lives are made from plastic or are contained in plastic. But plastic isn’t so great if you’re a sea turtle, whale, dolphin, seal, albatross or fish, or any organism that makes its home in the marine environment. The majority of debris found in the world’s oceans consists of plastic materials, and this debris is harmful to our marine wildlife, the oceans, and ultimately, to us.
I like to think in terms of how my choices and decisions and the environmental impact I make affects the ocean, and I always ask myself – how is my use or consumption of this product or service harmful to the ocean? I consider my impact and this determines my patterns and levels of consumption and behaviour. Healthy, sustainably managed oceans with abundant biodiversity are vital, because life will not continue to exist on this Earth if the oceans die.
As consumers, we use millions of tonnes of plastic every year, and this poses a potential threat to the world’s oceans. Plastic consists of polymers derived from oil (a finite resource that will eventually run out, or at least become harder to locate, and more difficult to extract, making it prohibitively too expensive for the average person – which is another issue entirely, and one that won’t be explored further here – I recommend the excellent ABC documentary Crude – The Incredible Journey of Oil if you want to know more).
Marine wildlife may become caught in plastic debris or mistake it for food and ingest it. Plastic persists in the environment for anywhere between hundreds to thousands of years (depending on the type of plastic). As these substances break down (and most plastics will never break down entirely as they are not fully biodegradable), they leach toxins into the marine environment. These toxins from plastics have been found in the tissues of fish which then become potentially dangerous to humans if eaten.
There is ample evidence of the damaging effects of plastic on marine wildlife – ten minutes on the internet and I found many reports of this occurring all over the world, to many different marine species, all incredibly sad stories, all preventable. Ingesting or becoming caught in plastic debris is a major hazard for marine animals, birds and fish. Some of these damaging effects may include:
- injuries to flukes, fins and flippers
- blocked digestive systems (intestines)
- inability to take in food
- puncturing of major internal organs
Sea turtles eat jellyfish, but a plastic bag floating around in the ocean looks an awful lot like a jellyfish to a turtle. A meta-analysis of 37 scientific studies conducted between 1985 and 2012 by University of Queensland researchers in 2013, based on data collected between 1900 and 2011, found that the amount of plastic debris endangered species of green sea turtles were ingesting has increased and that turtles were significantly more likely to ingest plastic debris than they were 25 years ago. They believe the problem will only get worse. Here are the links to the article and study.
Bottlenose dolphins have been found with plastic rings from six-packs wrapped around their rostrums and seals have become caught and tangled in plastic. An Eschrichtius robustus (Gray Whale) carcass washed up on a beach off the west coast of the United States had twenty plastic bags, surgical gloves and assorted other garbage in its stomach. Many other species of whales have been found all over the world, dead, washed up, malnourished, their stomachs filled to the brim with plastic debris.
You may have already seen those disturbing images of dead albatross chicks by American photographer Chris Jordan, the insides of their bodies exposed to reveal stomachs full of plastic. Albatross mistake brightly coloured pieces of plastic for food and feed their chicks with them, unknowingly and unintentionally, perhaps contributing to the death of their young. But even if these mothers were to feed their chicks fish, there’s a chance those fish may already be poisoned by toxic residues from plastic debris.
A recent study found that the chemicals in plastic debris swallowed by fish are interacting with digestive juices in their stomachs and transferring to their flesh via the bloodstream. The researcher believes there may be serious implications for those of us who eat fish. Here are the links to the article and study. If you regularly consume fish, you may be ingesting potentially deadly toxins from plastics (not to mention mercury and other organic pollutants). Our behaviour as consumers may ultimately come back to haunt us, going full circle.
What can we do to ensure our marine wildlife is safe from the perils of plastic debris? I’ve only recently found out about an Australian campaign called Plastic Free July, where you can register to take up the challenge to refuse single-use plastics for one month. A great idea to get us thinking about our plastic consumption and give being plastic-free a go for a short time, to see what’s possible. Hopefully this small taste of living plastic-free will serve as a springboard to change our behaviour on a more permanent basis. Check out Plastic Oceans for more information on how plastic marine debris is harming our oceans and marine wildlife and listen to the message from naturalist Sir David Attenborough on this important issue.
Although we need to applaud and acknowledge the wonderful, caring people in our rescue and rehabilitation facilities, who work tirelessly to care for and heal marine animals and birds injured by plastic debris, our real task lies in changing our behaviour, getting to the source of the problem – over-consumption. I endorse a naturopathic approach to this issue – don’t treat the symptoms (the effects of marine debris on marine wildlife), but prevent the disease (plastic debris entering the ocean) from occurring in the first place.
My motto when it comes to the environment is “I can’t do everything, but I do everything I can”. We must avoid single-use and disposable plastics whenever we can. I avoid buying drinks in plastic bottles – my drink of choice is filtered tap water from home, which I tote in a stainless steel drink bottle. Choose non-toxic materials such as glass and stainless steel over plastic. There are alternatives to petroleum-derived plastics – biodegradable plant-based plastics made from renewable resources – but these options shouldn’t be an excuse to continue over-consuming (and they still require resources – land and water – to grow the plants).
When it comes to single-use and disposable plastics always, always, always, use less or ‘refuse to use’ wherever and whenever you can. The next time you shop, take a minute to think about the potential deadly implications of your purchases on marine wildlife. Before you buy that bottle of water, use that disposable cup, or say yes to that plastic bag, ask yourself – do I really need this? Is there an alternative, or can I go without? If you can’t avoid it, make the commitment to ensure plastic waste gets recycled if possible and doesn’t end up in the ocean.