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Our Plastic Ocean: What Can We Do to Create Change?

Bonnie Monteleone

Our Plastic Ocean: What Can We Do to Create Change?
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Gripping the handrail of the 50-foot catamaran, careening through plastic-tainted waters in the North Pacific Ocean, I’m scared. Not for myself, but for a majestic albatross with a nine-foot wingspan as it hovers over a plastic lure we had cast. Like the dozens of fish that we have dissected since we left the Hawaii coast 20 days ago, I can foresee she was about to eat the plastic. My colleague pulled and reeled with all his might to retrieve the lure before the bird mistakenly ingested it.

Millions of animals meet untimely deaths from mistakenly ingesting plastic debris. We are collecting surface samples to assess the temporal and spatial distribution of plastic particles known as microplastics. All of our 54 samples collected from Hawaii to California will tell the same story—plastic is found everywhere, including the most remote places on the planet.

Plastic Debris Is Everywhere and Negatively Impacts Everything

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean is from runoff. That is, watersheds, rivers, and beaches are the primary debris highways to the ocean. Once in the marine environment, exposure to sunlight depletes the chemicals in plastics that maintain their integrity, causing the plastics to become brittle. The saltwater and wave action help break up the plastics into smaller pieces (microplastics) that become more available for smaller species to ingest. 

Plastic debris can negatively impact everything from the smallest animals on the planet, plankton, to the largest, blue whales. Forty percent of plastics produced annually are short-term-use plastics (e.g., single-use packaging). The quantity of single-use packaging found in watersheds is significantly higher than plastics designed for an extended time, like car parts. With the advent of COVID-19, people are using more disposable plastics for takeout, single-use masks, and disposable gloves. Like other single-use plastics, they are making their way into the environment and ocean. When not properly disposed of, the masks create yet another danger. Animals have been found entangled in the loops of discarded masks and may pose a threat of carrying the virus to other mammals.

What started as research in the middle of the ocean led to research closer to North Carolina shores. Working with commercial fishers, we acquired 101 black sea bass digestive tracts. Carefully cutting open the stomach of the first specimen, I pulled out a five-inch-long piece of plastic tape. Another fish ingested an entire lure and other plastic fragments and fibers. Of the 54 suspicious particles we removed, we positively identified 37 percent as plastic and 19 percent as semi-synthetic, human-made debris. Though plastics can cause abrasions and obstructions in the digestive tract, ingested plastics also can release harmful chemicals into animals, like plasticizers, which are known endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system manages every cell in the body.

Help Flatten the Ocean Plastic Curve

  • Vote with your dollars. Seek plastic-free packaging.
  • Bring reusable containers to store refill stations, bring your own bags and beverage containers, use reusable masks, and skip the straws.
  • Tell your favorite companies to use less or no plastic.
  • Encourage political leaders to subsidize recycling to help keep plastics in a circular economy.
  • Participate in local cleanups and financially support volunteer programs that keep plastic waste out of the environment because the plastic on the ground could end up in your fish sandwich.

The Plastic Ocean Project

The Plastic Ocean Project is a 501(c)3 whose mission is to educate through field research, implement progressive outreach initiatives, and incubate solutions to address the global plastic pollution problem, working with and for the next generation to create a more sustainable future.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is the US Federal government's lead for addressing marine debris. The MDP achieves its mission through five main pillars: Removal, Prevention, Research, Regional Coordination, and Emergency Response. MDP staff is positioned across the country to support projects and partnerships with state and local agencies, tribes, non-governmental organizations, academia, and industry.

It is all in our hands.