Going Blue

When Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962, the modern day “Green” movement was ignited. In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated and by 1975, the EPA had banned or severely restricted all six toxic chemicals discussed in her book. “Going Green” is an example of how powerful a movement can infiltrate politics, education, art, and media. For oceans, the United Nations officially recognized World Oceans Day in only 2008. This day celebrates the beauty and wonder of our oceans and how they are critical to our survival, but also brings to light the rapid degradation of our oceans. Ultimately, World Oceans Day embraces the importance of “Going Blue.” The Green movement was a reaction to a few prominent environmental disasters. If we proactively act now, we can remediate and prevent catastrophes in the future.  

This year’s World Oceans Day coincides with the United Nations Ocean Conference, which urges global government bodies and citizens to take action to improve and protect the health of our oceans (learn more about the conference here). Although a global consensus is absolutely necessary, such a process moves slowly, and there are bottom-up actions on a community level that could scale fast to help our ocean now. The focus of this year’s Oceans Day is “Encouraging solutions to plastic pollution and preventing marine litter for a healthier ocean and a better future.” With this in mind, this piece reflects on the evolution of marine litter, specifically plastic pollution, and approaches attainable actions for individuals. 

We have grown accustomed to instant gratification, demand, and commodity, and are at the mercy of advertising, which has in turn blossomed ignorance. Undeniably, we are a nation of consumers, a society increasingly democratized by our shared ability to enjoy the conveniences and comforts of modern life. We are moving so fast we can’t stop to look around us and realize how far we’ve come. However, if we can surpass ignorance and acknowledge that we are hurting our oceans, we can overcome apathy and mitigate other problems by tackling our everyday behavior and effect on our climate. As a collective force, we can even reverse some consequences caused by our actions (hello, ozone layer!). For instance, my 10 year old nephew convinced his classmates to use alternatives to plastic straws. Someone in India is making utensils out of crackers, and who knows, algae may save us all from its use as biofuel to biodegradable packaging.

Part of studying science is the pursuit and testing of truth test, and part of evaluating research is trying to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. If circumstances were different - if people knew things were not good for them, or if a parent didn’t have to work all day then go to a store to buy food for her family, if she had more money to buy organic, if organic is even available, if companies didn’t monopolize on and target marginalized communities - things could be different. Our time and money are precious, and we also don’t have the emotional bandwidth to take in the enormity of information about global issues. But the people who prepare the food and create the products we buy also have financial pressures and obligations, so we can’t (always) trust each other to have our best interest in mind. So hopefully this piece just shares some knowledge so you can decide what is normal for you. As Voltaire remarked “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”  You shouldn’t have to feel guilt-tripped into taking action, but if each person makes accessible choices that better themselves and the oceans, together this force is insurmountable.

And yes, there are more immediate threats to livelihood, but it is so strongly supported by peer-reviewed and credible science that these problems are interconnected - and our “first world problems” really do create problems for the rest of the developing world.  For instance, If the oceans were a nation, they would constitute the world’s 7th largest economy. If the environment, and specifically oceans, are kept in check, certain industries (i.e. fishing, tourism) will thrive, and certain burdens will lesson (i.e. in 2014, oceans contributed more than $352 billion to the U.S. GDP and supported 3.1 million jobs). If decades of peer-reviewed research is completely wrong, then the worst that can happen is that we have more jobs and a pretty decent planet to live in, and that other countries less fortunate may live more comfortably. The best that can happen is that we genuinely want to make a change, and work together creatively and strategically to make impactful changes.

 

PLASTIC

Hello, I hate plastics. I acknowledge plastic is wonderful. Depending on how it's processed, plastic can be used to wrap a sandwich or in a medical device to save someone’s life. What I loathe is the overproduction, demand, and dependency of plastics – even more so, without the realization. We are immune to the idea that plastic is anything but disposable, that we are entitled to plastic, and that it is cheap.  

What is plastic? Most of today's plastics are made of strong, stable, hydrocarbon molecules—packets of carbon and hydrogen—derived from the refining of oil, natural gas, coal, minerals and plants. Let me repeat that - plastic comes from FOSSIL FUELS. These are non-renewable sources that we use with the concept of infinite surplus. We have this notion that plastic is sterile and protects us, but there are lots of credible research that suggests fossil fuels and plastic products impose a lot of health risks ranging from respiratory diseases to cancer, and our exposure to contaminants is increasing [1-8].

America’s biggest snake-oil salesman. Initially monopolized by the military, and in efforts to conserve natural rubber, the production of plastics leaped during War World II, nearly quadrupling from 213 million pounds in 1939 to 818 million pounds in 1945. Once the war ended, plastics exploded into consumer markets, resulting in an economic boom that left Americans – who had been in a weary state of conservation – with an unprecedented level of disposable income. The average American could now have a stereo in every room, a car in the driveway, and be able to eat their TV dinners on trays and pack the leftovers away in Tupperware.

With this plastic proliferation, bottled water started to emerge in the 19th century as a healthy alternative to contaminated water supplies, and technological advancements improved production speed and lowered cost. However in the early 20th century, chlorination of municipal water spread around the world nearly collapsed the bottled water industry. In the past, buying clean water was reserved for the wealthy, but now it was available to all for free. Nonetheless, thanks to a $5m campaign television advertising across America – the largest ever for a bottled water – Perrier changed the way we view drinking water. Perrier sales in the US increased from 2.5m bottles to more than 75m bottles from 1975 to just 1978. Today, thanks to marketing, packaging and convenience, bottled water sales surpass beer and milk sales in the U.S.

Who has our best interest in mind? We cannot rely on assuming what is marketed to us is safe for us. Does it make any sense that soda companies are interested in bottled water? Corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo know how lucrative bottled water is, and we want to drink clean water. In 2006, the EPA found 89.3% of the nation's community water systems were in compliance with more than 90 EPA standards. The U.S. has some of the cleanest and safest public water supplies in the world. However, a poll conducted by Gallup in 2017 revealed 63% of Americans “worry a great deal about pollution of drinking water.” You just have to look around to actualize this number.

There is too much single-use plastic in the world. Americans have a never-ending smorgasbord of affordable plastic goods to choose from and then move on from quickly. We don’t have to worry about what happens when we “recycle.” Take plastic bags for instance. It is estimated that Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. Plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, however it takes more than 500 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately the bags don’t break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics (plastic fragments <5 mm in diameter and are a widespread form of contamination in marine ecosystems around the globe) that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.

Dr. Kathryn Berry researching ocean plastic pollution on the 2016 Hydrous expedition to the Maldives

Dr. Kathryn Berry researching ocean plastic pollution on the 2016 Hydrous expedition to the Maldives

Most plastic is thrown out, not recycled. Today Americans discard about 33.6 million tons of plastic each year, but in the U.S., 93% of plastics are not recovered, and go straight to landfills. So even though developed countries have the ability and programs to recycle, most refuse is exported it to be recycled elsewhere. Scrap and trash has consistently been one of the U.S.’s biggest export, with all U.S. plastic scrap exports in 2015 totaling 2,058,000 metric ton and valued at $817.8 million.

Environmentalism is reserved for the elite -- but it’s not upheld. As we now know, recycling really isn’t ‘noble’ - it’s just moving trash around. Furthermore, enacting regulations does not necessarily reciprocate environmental friendliness. Take the U.S. for instance. We have plans that allow us to recycle and laws that protect the environment, but we are one of the biggest polluters. The Maldives on the other hand, are responsible for just 0.01% of global greenhouse gases, but they suffer due to collective harm from other countries.

Plastic ends up in oceans and never truly degrades. It is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Not only are we consuming oil-derived microplastics and fibers (degraded from larger plastic items, dumping from boats, blown in from shore, littering, effluent, waterway contamination), but plastic debris easily absorb and excrete toxins, and as fish eat smaller animals and invertebrates that also consume plastic, these toxins bioaccumulate and biomagnify as they move through trophic levels [9-15].

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Changing at political level is too slow. It can take years for a ban to come into full force once passed, and may be applied to just cities, counties, or states as opposed to large-scale nationwide. For instance, microplastics were banned in California in 2015, but exempts microbeads in prescription drugs and in products containing less than 1 part per million (ppm) of plastic microbeads, and does not include cosmetics. The ban will take five years to go into effect. Additionally, California passed the plastic bag ban in November 2016, however, the law does not affect plastic produce bags, newspaper bags, or bags in restaurants and other stores. Furthermore, we often hear to “vote with your dollar,” but at the scale and magnitude of plastic was production and consumption, we need change NOW. We therefore need to act independently to pick up the slack of slow policy….etc etc etc or something? 

The demand for plastics isn’t slowing down. For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise (299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013), however recovery and recycling remains insufficient, and millions of tons of plastics end up in landfills and oceans each year. The use of recycled/reclaimed material is prevalent in the fashion industry (e.g. Nike shoes made from ocean litter). Although popular, this type of ‘upcycling’ is not true cradle-to-cradle recyclable, in that it doesn’t conserve virgin materials (hydrocarbon polymer chains, crude oil). Instead of making it fashionable to upcycle plastic bottles into a garment, let’s make it cool to eliminate the problem in the first place, so this waste doesn’t exist.

Resources

  1. Kampa, Marilena, and Elias Castanas. "Human health effects of air pollution." Environmental pollution 151.2 (2008): 362-367.

  2. Haines, Andy, et al. "Climate change and human health: impacts, vulnerability and public health." Public health 120.7 (2006): 585-596.

  3. Ribeiro, Helena, and Unesco. "Fossil fuel energy impacts on health." Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (2001).

  4. Grigg, J. "The health effects of fossil fuel derived particles." Archives of disease in childhood 86.2 (2002): 79-83.

  5. Yang, Chun Z., et al. "Most plastic products release estrogenic chemicals: a potential health problem that can be solved." Environmental Health Perspectives 119.7 (2011): 989.

  6. Vandenberg, Laura N., et al. "Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA)." Reproductive toxicology 24.2 (2007): 139-177.

  7. Talsness, Chris E., et al. "Components of plastic: experimental studies in animals and relevance for human health." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1526 (2009): 2079-2096.

  8. Huang, Y. Q., et al. "Bisphenol A (BPA) in China: a review of sources, environmental levels, and potential human health impacts." Environment international 42 (2012): 91-99.

  9. Jambeck, J.R., et al., Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 2015. 347(6223): p. 768-771.

  10. Eriksen, M., et al., Plastic pollution in the world's oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLOS ONE, 2014. 9(12): p. E111913.

  11. GESAMP, Sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: a global assessment, P.J. Kershaw, Editor. 2015, IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/UNIDO/WMO/IAEA/UN/UNEP/UNDP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection: London, U.K. p. 96.

  12. Cole, M., et al., Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton Environmental Science and Technology, 2013. 47(12): p. 6646-6655.

  13. Hall, N.M., et al., Microplastic ingestion by scleractinian corals. Marine Biology, 2015. 162(3): p. 725-732.

  14. Graham, E.R., & Thompson, J.T. Deposit- and suspension-feeding sea cucumbers (Echinodermata) ingest plastic fragments. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 2009. 368(1): p. 22–29.

  15. Phillips, M.B., et al., Occurrence and amount of microplastic ingested by fishes in watersheds of the Gulf of Mexico, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2015. 100(1): p. 264-269.