Take one moment to recall the last piece of plastic you used. Was it yesterday, this morning, or maybe even now as you read? Since plastic first became a popular material in everyday use in the 1950s, plastic consumption and waste has increased at a rate nearly 2.5 greater than that of our global economy. Plastic has completely infiltrated our lives and our planet’s ecosystems.
Marine Plastics: Why Are They An Issue?
On average, of the whopping 380 million tons of plastic produced globally every year, an estimated 10 million tons are dumped into the oceans. This debris has been found in nearly every explored portion of the ocean — a plastic bag was even discovered recently at the deepest point of the ocean — and continues to infiltrate delicate ecosystems that account for some of the most bio-diverse areas of the planet. The pollution has a particularly dramatic impact on ocean wildlife, killing millions of marine animals each year.
Many species mistake pieces of plastic for food, are entangled in large pieces of waste, or even choke on plastics blocking their ventilation. Scientists have also asserted that corals that come into close contact with plastics have an 85 percent higher chance of contracting disease than if they had not. And while plastics do eventually break down (usually over the course of about 1,000 years), they never fully decompose.
Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic debris that measure less than five millimeters in length. These fragments are either small by design (Primary Microplastics) or have broken down over time from large pieces into their current size (Secondary Microplastics). While five millimeters may not seem like a significant amount, it’s actually the microscopic size of these plastic particles that make them so detrimental to our waters. Unlike larger debris, microplastics are not typically visible to the unaided eye, and are, consequently, nearly impossible to collect.
Making matters worse, a study linked above highlights that roughly 1 percent of the plastic in the ocean is found floating in a visible form. The remaining 99 percent of the plastic in the ocean is likely to be found in microplastic form. Microplastics pose a similar problem to large debris, but impact species in a different way. Moving up the food chain as plankton and fish larvae consume them, microplastics are even found in the seafood we eat and the fish we see while on the water. It’s likely that you have microplastics in your bloodstream right now.
A diver picking up plastics in the ocean. Image credit: Cristian Palmer
Plastics Onboard: How You Can Help
Packing for a day on the water, plastic baggies, single-use water bottles, and other plastic items often seem like the automatic go-to, but it’s important to remember the impact this decision may have. Winds and waves can easily knock lightweight plastic items into the water, contributing to the ever-growing amount of plastic in the ocean.
Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s Dr. Ross Boucek, an active sailor, shared the moment he realized how severe the plastic pollution in our oceans was, saying, “I first realized it when fishing mangrove shorelines…everywhere you go you always see it. You can’t have a day on the water without seeing a plastic bag or bottle. It’s always in your face.”
Boucek added that while reducing individual plastic use is absolutely necessary, it’s also important to be active in how you dispose of your plastic waste. We all have a responsibility to conserve our marine life when out on the water, as Boucek concluded, “There’s stuff you need plastic for — in the world we live in, you can’t get away from it — but what you can do is reduce the chances of that plastic ending up in the ocean.”
Here are a few ways you can help keep plastics out of our oceans:
- Pack lunch sustainably by switching to reusable water bottles and sandwich baggies, or by reusing the plastic items you’ve already got
- Remove packaging from items you’re bringing on the water to decrease the amount of plastic being brought on the boat in the first place
- If you’re planning on fishing, ensure the security of your gear and other plastic items to reduce their chances of being blown off the boat
- Keep a storage bin for any waste you might create (or collect!)
- Take initiative and clean up coastal areas by removing any plastic you see while on the water (Hint: If there are kids on the boat, buy them a small net to collect plastics and turn it into a game)
Handy tips to help boaters reduce their environmental footprint while boating. Happy Earth Day folks!...