Plastics Wrap

In honor of Blog Action Day, I had declared the theme for October here on 2Dolphins to be all about the environment.   Although I hadn’t planned it going in, plastic shopping bags and their alternatives ended up being a focal point of our eco-blogging efforts.   So to put a wrap (pun intended!) on our plastic shopping bag coverage, I’d like to mention a disturbing issue that I became aware of only just this month — how dramatically plastic pollution is negatively impacting life in the oceans.

Reef debrisAccording to the California Coastal Commission, 90% of floating marine debris is plastic and 80% of that debris originates on land.   Americans contribute more than 180lbs of plastic into landfills each year on average.   With storms and other urban runoff, plastic trash makes its way into river streams, and eventually oceans.   Once there, the plastic gets broken down and circulated continually by currents in the open sea.   (Be sure to read the excellent Best Life magazine article Plastic Ocean: Our oceans are turning into plastic…are we? for more info on seabound plastic pollution.)

One such current, the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is a swirling vortex comprised mostly of plastic debris that’s now estimated to be twice the size of Texas.   The gyre that lies between California & Hawaii is fed by several major oceanic currents and its circular rotation naturally draws drfting garbage in.   Since plastics do not biodegrade, debris continually accumulates in this ever-expanding mass.   Perhaps most disturbing is that researchers have even given this "island" a formal name:   The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.   The ecological damage wrought by this floating landfill might even rival the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Birds, fish, & smaller marine life eat the plastic because it mimics the food they eat, zooplankton.   (Studies show that plastic particles outnumber zooplankton by as much as 6 to 1.)   Turtles, dolphins, whales, & larger aquatic animals often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and die of intestinal blockage after ingesting the debris.   Dolphin swimming in plastic debrisWhat’s more, plastic debris can attract and hold hydrophobic elements like PCB and DDT at up to one million times background levels, making the plastic not only hazardous, but deadly poisonous as well.   Even marine debris that’s not eaten can still be deadly as the plastic can wrap around fins, flippers & limbs, entangling the animal and ultimately causing drowning or amputation.   Perhaps worst of all, after an animal is killed by plastic bags, its body decomposes and the plastic is released back into the environment — where it can kill again.

What’s the solution?   Well, it all starts with us, the consumers.   Ultimately, we each bear the responsibility to recycle more, litter less, and aggressively reduce the overall usage of disposable plastic-based items, such as styrofoam containers, shopping bags, & water bottles.   Like replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent (or LED) lights, a small step like using cloth shopping bags is an easy step that we can all take to begin reducing our need for disposable plastics.

Maybe ORV Alguita crewmember Tony Nichols summed it up best:

The circle of life has a new component.   Unwelcome and introduced by man, plastic is permanent and must be dealt with!

Be sure to set your DVR for Nov. 21st at 3:00 pm to watch Animal Planet’s rebroadcast of the documentary video produced by BBC’s Natural History Unit called Hawaii: Message in the Waves for a revealing look at some of the environmental challenges facing the people & wildlife of the Hawaiian Islands, with a focus on giving immediate attention to the issue of global plastic pollution.