By Sarah Frazer || Staff Writer
As part of F&M’s Sustainability Week, at last Thursday’s Common Hour, Dr. Kara Lavender Law, a Research Professor of Oceanography at the Sea Education Association, spoke on the harmful effects that plastics in our oceans can have on marine life.
First, Law explained that, while the popular understanding of plastic in the oceans is of huge islands of trash visible from space, that type of plastic debris is not the only problem facing marine animals. In reality, Law explained, scientists see small pieces of plastic floating hundreds of miles from land. After the March 2011 tsunami hit Japan, some of the things researchers have seen include a floating refrigerator, a tire, and a soccer ball.
Marine debris includes things like trash found on the beach. In the last thirty years that the Ocean Conservancy has done beach clean ups, the items on the top of the list of trash have remained the same. These include cigarette butts and food wrappers, among other products. Notably, every item at the top of the list is plastic. However, marine debris exists elsewhere too. There is trash and debris on the seafloor. Scientists have found debris in deep places, such as 25 meters down in the arctic. Law explained that “most recently microplastics have also been found in arctic sea ice.” Typically, plastics in the open ocean are “microplastics,” which are not easily seen, but still are contaminants in the ocean.
According to Law, though marine debris can be composed of anything, scientists focus on plastic because the most abundant materials typically collected are made of plastic. Microplastics are the most prevalent. They have been found in deep-sea sediments. She said that most of the microplastics are formed from larger articles breaking down, but we can’t tell where they came from.
Law said that, to our knowledge, plastic debris never biodegrades. And starting in 1950, plastic production has accelerated more so than any other material. Moreover, since 2000, production of plastic has nearly doubled. Thus, Law explained, “there’s a lot of plastic on the planet and it’s not going away.”
“Trash doesn’t belong in the environment, I think we all agree,” Law continued, but what are the environmental impacts? Marine animals “encounter” marine debris by either ingesting it or getting entangled in it. According to Law, more than tons of marine species have had encounters with marine debris, and 90% of that debris is plastic. Entanglement is a clear threat to animals, Law said. Another issue is that, because plastics don’t biodegrade, some animals live on plastic debris or follow it for protection. These marine animals are often displaced when the plastic moves. The organisms living on the plastic are often quite different from the surrounding marine life, and scientists are concerned that the plastics are transporting potentially invasive species.
Another impact, Law explained, is plastic debris being ingested by marine animals. We have evidence that over 200 marine species are ingesting plastics. Law contended, “I think we can all agree that animals shouldn’t be eating plastic.” Chemicals from those plastics are also a problem. This impact affects humans. In one study of seafood species at a fish market, every single species had plastic inside of it. Humans are possibly eating plastic; According to Law, if you are eating shellfish, you are probably ingesting some microplastic particles. Law said that scientists don’t know if this impact actually matter though, if eating seafood is a risk.
There are a few ways plastic debris enters the ocean. Plastics products are either being used and lost to the environment or are discarded as waste. Law explained that the latter makes up the bigger proportion of plastic in the ocean. Scientists argue that the problem is waste that is improperly managed. The exception to this rule is cosmetic microbeads, which are properly managed and can still go in the ocean.
At any rate, improper management is a huge issue. According to a data set compiled by the World Bank, in 2010, 8 million metric tons of plastic were dumped into the ocean. This waste is very prevalent in Southeast Asia because it is less developed and therefore, has less of a capacity to manage the waste properly. However, Law emphasized that “this is not just an Asia problem. It’s a US problem.” The US is number 20 on the list of plastic polluters. Americans produce more plastic trash per person per day than any country in the world.
Law offered a few suggestions for lessening the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean. On a macro level, she explained, humanity needs to improve its waste management infrastructure, as the most pressing need is to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean. Further, Law argued that we need to lessen our usage of plastic: “in terms of really making a difference in this problem… we have to innovate and redesign some of our uses for plastic,” such as with packaging.
Fortunately, Law said that the topic of ocean plastics has risen quickly on international policy agendas. The UN has a variety of programs, and there are even scientists who argue we need an international agreement about plastics in the ocean. In the US, Congress passed a bipartisan ban on wash-off microbeads in cosmetics. Another bipartisan effort passed by Congress was the Save Our Seas Act.
Law emphasized that individual people can make a difference too. She said, “there’s still work to do, but we don’t need to wait for the feds or wait for the globe.” People should ask themselves: where does my trash go? Even where do my recyclables and compost go? According to Law, “The less waste we produce, the less we have to deal with.” She urged people to “ask yourself ‘do I need this’ before purchasing it.” Importantly, Law said to please not put things in the recycling bin if you’re not sure it goes there. Lastly, Law suggested citizens engage with your local government and public works department. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are solutions.
Senior Sarah Frazer is a staff writer her email is firstname.lastname@example.org