Much has been written about the North Pacific Gyre, a congregation of floating plastics coming together due to the various movements of Pacific Ocean currents. While it contains pieces of plastics that pose immediate threats to fish, marine mammals, and birds due to entanglement or ingestion, there is the additional problem of what becomes of the plastics over time. Sunlight combined with water/wave action breaks the plastic down into smaller and smaller particles which can be ingested by smaller and smaller creatures - down to the plaktonic level - which means that the plastic can permeate its way through the entire oceanic web of life.
Plastics seemingly last forever. Their so-called biodegradability involves breaking down into base components, which means the separation of the various chemicals used in the production of plastics - chemicals which can prove to be toxic and, again, enter the food chain at base levels, impacting plankton, and more. So first you have large plastics pieces - discarded bags, bottles, soda can container rings, rope, netting, etc. - that can ensare, entangle, or if ingested, block the digestive tracts of a variety of sea creatures. Then as the plastic breaks down, there are the micro-particles that can be consumed by smaller creatures. And finally, there are all the chemicals being given off: low-level poisons that can have a cumulative effect.
Plastics: the "gift" that keeps on giving.
To address the issue requires industrial science to generate improved or alternative products - a new generation of plastics or plastic-like products that break down safely, as opposed to the current specific and unrealistic set of precise circumstances (light, temperature, moisture) needed for "successful" biodegradation. And there must be a more responsible use of plastics on the part of the consumer to reuse and/or recycle.
And there is also the need for legislation to nudge both industry and the consumer in the right direction. The Sea Turtle Restoration Project recently alerted its California members of upcoming state legislation to restrict the use of plastic bags, bottle caps, and more (plastics endanger leatherback turtles that feed on the plastic or became entangled). Within California, several cities have already banned the use of plastic shopping bags or instituted stiffer fines for plastic littering. Here are the three bills:
AB 2138 (Chesbro) - Plastic Ocean Pollution Reduction, Recycling and Composting Act
AB 2138 would prohibit food providers from distributing single-use food packaging and bags unless they are accepted for either recycling or composting in at least 75% of households in a jurisdiction and are recovered at rate of at least 25%. This policy will make the fast food sector financially responsible to:
- Switch to packaging that is compatible with the recycling and/or composting services available in the communities they serve.
- Work with local governments and recyclers to increase processing and market capacity for recyclable and compostable packaging alternatives.
- Work with consumers to ensure that their packaging is recycled or composted.
- Single-use food packaging litter kills endangered sea turtles that become entangled or mistake it for food. Single-use packaging is a primary source of urban litter and oceanic litter pollution, according to storm drain and beach cleanup studies. Polystyrene, plastic bags and other non-recyclable packaging have a high propensity to be littered because they are light and aerodynamic and are consumed away from home. Up to 80% of ocean pollution is litter from urban runoff, and non-recyclable single-use food packaging is a primary component of urban litter.
AB 1998 will reduce dangerous plastic bag litter pollution by banning plastic bags at large retail outlets. Plastic bags are a primary component of urban litter pollution. And urban litter pollution is the primary component of marine litter pollution. Plastic already outweighs plankton in the North Pacific Gyre. Plastic pollution costs California families hundreds of dollars annually in hidden litter clean-up costs. Current retailer practices result in the distribution of approximately 19 billion plastic carryout bags annually.
AB 925 (Saldaña) - Plastic Bottle Caps
Requires plastic bottle caps be attached to the plastic container and be recyclable. As more than half of all single use beverages in plastic containers being consumed outside of the home, these plastic bottle caps can easily become part of the litter and waste stream. Beach clean-up studies find that plastic bottle caps are among most littered items. AB 925 proposes to address this problem by requiring that the bottle caps remain connected to the bottle, more than 60% of which are currently recycled, thereby significantly reducing the waste, litter and threat to wildlife posed by discarded bottle caps.
Californians can and should voice their support for these bills (they can click on each assembly bill listed above to send an email). And for you non-Californians, check your own state's government web site to see if similar legislation is in the works to protect the quality of life where you live. It doesn't matter whether your state has an ocean coastline or is landlocked, we all have bodies of water - be they freshwater or saltwater - that can be adversely effected by the growing volume of plastics we have produced over decades.
I suspect that plastics, in one form or another, are here to stay. If that be the case, then it behooves us to produce, use, and recycle plastics more responsibly. Or it will bury us.
Learn more about plastic pollution at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.