Plastic Pollution and How Individuals Can Change the World
2014, High School, Prose
The sea is a place of tranquility, a place to sit in peaceful acceptance and watch as the water ebbs and flows, as the sun sets on an empty horizon, a place of quiet understanding. The sea is a grand adventure, the next frontier, a vast, unexplored terrain. The sea is exotic, somewhere to lounge on white sand bleached by a benevolent sun next to cerulean coves. It is terrifying, a source of anxiety or stress. It is intriguing, mysterious, an unknown entity; it inspires awe, wonder, curiosity. Some prefer to encounter the sea without any solid earth around at all; far from landfall they find peace and self-sufficiency. Some live by the sea—their very existence tied to it like a bird’s life is tied to the air.
No matter what the sea means to you, you depend on it to live. Ocean currents bring warm water to cold climates and vice versa, making extreme climates hospitable to humans and evening out global temperatures. The ocean absorbs a huge amount of human-produced carbon dioxide which, while terrible for the pH of the ocean, has saved us from ourselves— at least for a little while. Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced by marine autotrophs, so no matter your personal relationship with the ocean, it sustains life on earth in a way that can hardly be overstated.
The ocean keeps—and has kept—us alive. It has come time now for us to keep the ocean alive. We, as a global community, are faced today by some of the most momentous tasks in history—changing our society such that our world no longer bears our burden so heavily. This is a responsibility that each and every individual must assume on a daily basis if we are to succeed.
Plastic pollution in our oceans is a particularly striking example of this global need for individual action, because it poses such a monumental challenge to our globe.
The modern age of plastic began in earnest in the decades following World War II, when plastic became increasingly more important in commercial circles. Plastic represented a major breakthrough in industry: it was cheap, versatile, and durable, and new uses were continuously being discovered. Plastic was lightweight, allowing it to be transported more easily than heavier materials like glass or metal. Plastic was cheap to produce, and as a result, the use of plastic has been steadily rising since World War II. Large-scale production of plastic materials has resulted in a steep drop in consumer prices. Today, we live in a primarily plastic world. Look around you—I’ll bet you can name upwards of a dozen items that derive from plastic.
More plastic usage means more plastic trash, creating a modern age of plastic pollution. When most people think of marine plastic pollution, they think of macroplastics, or plastics larger than 5 mm in length. The most familiar example of macroplastic is something called a “ghost net”, a term for netting that has been lost by fishing boats or otherwise cut from its source. Animals can get caught in this fishing gear—for example, endangered North Atlantic Right Whales commonly get tangled in plastic ghost netting. It is estimated that at least 72% of the North Atlantic Right Whale population has been entangled at least once, with some becoming entangled more than once in their lifetime. Marine mammals like sea lions and seals are particularly at risk, due to their energetic and inquisitive nature—young fur seals “poke their heads into loops and holes” of plastic nets and other debris: although the plastic slips on fine, due to the way their fur lies it is much more difficult for the debris to come off. As the seals grow older, their plastic collars tighten, slowly cutting into arteries or strangling them. One study conducted in the Bering Sea estimated that about 40,000 Northern fur seals were killed per year by entanglement in plastic-based fishing nets. Huge numbers of species suffer from entanglement, including at least “32 species of marine mammals, 51 species of seabirds and 6 species of sea turtles.”
Macroplastics in our oceans are a huge issue. On the other side of the coin, however, are microplastics. Plastics, because of their molecular structure, do not degrade. Once introduced to marine ecosystems, they break down into ever-smaller pieces through the constant destructive power of salt water and sunlight. These tiny pieces of broken-down plastic, called microplastics, are defined as any piece of plastic less than 5 mm in length.
Microplastics pose as large an issue for our oceans as macroplastics. Their introduction to marine environments has caused a slew of problems. They act as a sponge for extremely harmful chemicals in the ocean—things like PCBs, PAH, and DDT. These chemicals and others have been known to cause “endocrine disruption and cancer-causing mutations” in humans. As microplastics travel through ocean water, they absorb these toxic molecules like a sponge, so that concentrations of harmful chemicals found on the surface of microplastics can be up to one million times higher than that of the surrounding water. When fish eat these particles of plastic, mistaking them for food, this concentrated source of harmful chemicals is passed up the food chain. In a 2008 Pacific Gyre Voyage, 35% of the 672 fish caught had ingested plastic pieces.
Plastic is wreaking havoc in marine ecosystems, havoc that we’re just now beginning to understand: entanglement and absorption of toxic chemicals only scratch the surface of the harmful effects that plastic has on marine environments. Plastic provides a non-biodegradable vehicle for microorganisms to latch onto as they drift from ocean to ocean with the currents, bringing invasive species to new places with alarming speed; plastics constitute an entirely new substrate that we’ve introduced into marine environments in just the past 50 to 70 years. When eaten by organisms, plastic takes up space in their digestive tracks, causing them to feel full even though they aren’t deriving nutritional benefit from the plastics. Because of this, plastic consumption can cause marine creatures to starve to death.
All of these effects require us to know more about the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans. However, this is very difficult to quantify—the number of particles that any given study finds is highly dependent on a number of factors, including where the researchers are in the world, what depth they test at, if they are near the shore or not, and especially the size of the net used to capture plastic. For this reason, it’s hard to get a complete sense of what we’re facing, but we do know that plastic has a menacingly large presence in marine environments. One study in the Northern Pacific Ocean found that plankton were five times more abundant than plastic particles; however, “the mass of plastic was approximately six times that of plankton.”
How did we get ourselves to a situation where plastic in our oceans is six times more voluminous than plankton, the base of the food chain? Naomi Klein, a prolific environmental activist known for her sharp criticism of corporate globalism, has some ideas. Klein believes that humans are suffering from a terrible case of bad timing—that just when we need the most flexibility to confront the growing environmental issues facing us, we are saddled with stringent local and national restrictions that prevent us from working together effectively as a species. Just as we need to consume less, consumerism is becoming the most influential force in the world. She brings up an interesting point—of the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), only ‘recycle’ has ever been influential, because “it allows us to keep on shopping as long as we put the refuse in the right box.”
This out of control consumerism has created a toxic throwaway culture. Our entire society hinges upon the idea that there is “always an ‘away’ into which we can throw our waste.” ‘Away’ can take the form of landfills, the air, and especially the ocean. Plastic that blows offshore seems to go ‘away’—but the truth is that our world has no away! All of the things that disappear go somewhere. We know that, but still we live in a state of “constant forgetfulness”; as Klein says, we learn to live with it. We do not forgive it, necessarily, but we allow the mindless waste to continue. We all know, for instance, that animals die from plastic entanglement. However, as a society, we don’t refuse to use plastic materials; we don’t write letters to our policy makers; we don’t get outraged.
This societal aversion to outrage is one major obstacle to activism. Rage is a very influential emotion; it inspires action. The problem with outrage is that, although there are things to be angry over just about wherever we look, it’s really hard to go about life perpetually outraged. So instead, we learn to shut it out, live our lives through a haze of chosen ignorance, and allow it to continue.
This passive acceptance of big issues means that plastic pollution can often seem far removed from the lives of individual people. I myself am guilty of this—I don’t live on the coast; someone else does. Throwing away one plastic bottle that could have been recycled won’t affect me in the immediate future. Buying 300 plastic spoons for a party with the deliberate intention of using each of them only once isn’t going to negatively affect my immediate living conditions. Using plastic bags instead of paper ones doesn’t make me a bad person. To many, including in many cases myself, it sometimes seems that one person could never make a very big difference in the face of a problem so unimaginably vast.
Herein lies our second mistake: assuming that one individual cannot make a difference. Plastic pollution in our oceans is such a vast issue that it seems to us impossible to face head-on. The title of Naomi Klein’s article sums it up: “Climate change is the fight of our lives— yet we can hardly bear to look at it”—and the same is true of marine plastic pollution. In the face of a 6:1 ratio of plastic mass to plankton mass, it may seem like there’s nothing we can do. That makes it easier to shunt our dirty oceans into a box in the back of our minds, to open when desired, always giving ourselves the opportunity to close it up at will and resume normal life without any of the accompanying outrage. In fact, Klein supports this view of individual powerlessness: she tells her readers that we need to band together as a species to combat immense environmental issues—that unless the entire planet works together, we can’t accomplish anything at all. It is true, I grant her, that we need to work together globally. However, it is equally as unlikely.
We, as a world, have a limited amount of time in which to combat plastic pollution before it wreaks irreversible damage on our world. The fact is, governments are clunky and difficult to maneuver. It will be extraordinarily difficult to create meaningful change in the time we have left if we rely on our policy makers and governments to cooperate and create that change for us. Individuals must feel empowered to make a difference.
We’ve all heard the spiel before: “EVERY person can make a difference! Over the course of one human lifetime, we use up X plastic bottles! Just use fewer bottles! That’ll surely solve the problem!” The reason this doesn’t stick with us is because it clearly isn’t true. Everybody, at this point, knows that one individual using fewer bottles will not solve the problem of plastic pollution. Faced by such a huge issue, without being given any correspondingly huge solutions that we can implement in our daily lives, it seems to each of us that nothing we do can make a difference, positive or negative. However—and this is the most important part— it was this very mindset that got us in this mess in the first place! The idea permeating society, that individuals have no power on their own, is inherently flawed, because individuals create the whole of humanity. When individuals assume they have no ability to make a change, that idea ripples outward, causing all of humanity to believe it’s someone else’s problem, because every person believes themselves to be exempt from the need to create any change at all.
It is only when we each take responsibility onto our own shoulders that any substantial societal shift can happen. If everyone assumed responsibility of their own actions all at once, and began believing that their individual impact truly does affect the globe, then the world can change. But this will only happen if we all believe that individual actions can make a substantial difference, because those ideas will also ripple outward, causing more change than we could dream. All of humanity must act as though we all, individually, are the only ones capable of freeing our oceans from all traces of plastic. Then, these individual impacts will build up into a global movement.
This is hard, I know. We all know the basics: recycle everything that can be recycled, don’t litter, and avoid one-time use plastic products. The fact is, sometimes it’s really hard to hold oneself accountable for all of the little things one does over the course of the day. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to hold onto your plastic bottle until you find a recycling bin. Sometimes it’s hard not to just buy plastic spoons instead of washing metal cutlery. But the truth is that these action steps, seemingly small and insignificant as they are, can add up. When one person starts doing everything they can, their message can spread through families, to friends, to entire communities. In many cases, plastic pollution is a question of being more aware, paying more attention. If we all join together to take individual action where we can, we can create a global movement.
Our oceans depend on it.