If you’ve spent any time in the zero waste space recently, you’ve undoubtedly seen something on social media about plastics in our oceans. I see beach cleanups taking place on Instagram, and I read articles on Twitter about plastics making their way to the sea via canals and rivers and endangering wildlife.
It was Twitter that led me to the documentary “A Plastic Ocean”, made by Craig Leeson, who started out to make a film about blue whale, and ended up switching gears when, out on a whale sighting trip in open ocean, he came across a startling amount of plastic floating in the water. The resulting film is a soul stirring, shocking, inspiring work, which I think everyone should see.
It’s not easy to watch. Leeson captures some frightening and sad scenes depicting the ways in which plastics in the ocean affect marine life. There is heartbreaking footage of a seal entangled in a net of plastic cording, and of a bottle nose dolphin trying to rid itself of a plastic bag that’s wrapped around its snout.
WHEN PLASTICS “BREAK DOWN”
What most people don’t realize is that plastics don’t necessarily stay in one piece when they find their way to the ocean. A combination of time, salt, and waves breaks them down into much smaller pieces, which then disperse in the water or get washed up on beaches. These smaller pieces are much easier for animals to accidentally ingest. Leeson shows footage of marine scientists dissecting fish, marine mammals, and birds that have died suddenly, and finds these small plastic pieces in their systems. In one shocking case, an albatross died with a stomach so full of plastic it was rigid to the touch. When the plastic was removed, over 100 small pieces were counted.
HOW PLASTICS COME BACK TO US
Even if the plastic that these animals ingest isn’t enough to cause sudden death as in the case of the albatross, it can have other harmful effects as well. When fish consume plastic, the chemicals in the plastic like BPA and phthalates leech into their bloodstreams, and make their way into the fats and tissues of the fish, i.e. the parts of the fish that we eat. These chemicals can then be transferred to us with adverse health effects. Moreover, these small pieces of plastic can act as magnets for other chemicals and toxins, which can also leech into the bloodstreams of the fish. In other words, the plastics that get into the ocean are eventually coming right back into our bloodstreams via the food chain.
These plastics are disrupting ecosystems in the ocean, and as David Attenborough points out in the film, if you disrupt the health of the ocean, you disrupt the health of the whole planet. The fragile balance of life in the ocean has a direct effect on life on dry land.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
So what can we do about plastics in the ocean? The number one way to help the cause is to start refusing single use plastics. Some of the biggest culprits are plastic water bottles, straws, plastic cutlery, plastic food and drink containers, plastic food packaging, and plastic grocery bags.
A few tools can help to you to be prepared to refuse single-use plastics:
- A reusable glass or metal water bottle to carry with you and refill instead of buying water in plastic
- A stainless steel straw, if you feel you need straws for your beverages
- A reusable coffee mug to fill at your local coffee shop; can also be used for other beverages or snacks
- Travel cutlery or a camping spork to use instead of plastic cutlery that may come with food you order while on the go
- Reusable metal tiffin or glass food container – ask your local takeout spot to put your food in your own container instead of in plastic or Styrofoam
- Reusable canvas tote bag for grocery shopping – use these instead of plastic grocery bags, and try to buy fruits and veg that are not wrapped in plastic or packed with Styrofoam; try to choose rice, pasta, beans, and grains that are packaged in cardboard
Plastic Free July is the perfect opportunity to take a long, hard, look at the single-use plastics that are so common in our lives, and to make an effort to significantly cut back. How much plastic do you use every day? Start collecting it all in one place, and you may be surprised at what you find. Just remember that every bit of plastic you refuse is one less piece of plastic potentially finding its way into the ocean and disrupting the ecosystem. Less plastic is healthier for the planet and healthier for us.
Images are stills from the original film.