Awash in Plastic

Awash in Plastic


As I write this I am just coming back from a couple of days hiking sand dunes, climbing capes and running beaches on the Oregon Coast.  It is a beautiful and powerful place.  However, in recent years my visits always leave me a little sad – I can’t help but notice, and be disturbed by, the ubiquitous plastic trash.

A new study estimates nearly 270,000 tons of plastic is floating in the world's oceans. That's enough to fill more than 38,500 garbage trucks.

The larger pieces like water bottles, lone flip flops and chunks of tires are ugly but they aren’t the most serious problem.  The bigger issue is Mermaid’s Tears.  These are the very small pieces, trillions of them, that are imbedded in the sand, the water column and the kelp beds.  These small pieces of plastic can look like food to fish and seabirds and therefore, the fish and birds eat them, often dying of starvation and malnutrition with their stomachs full of petroleum-based plastic.   Moreover, this plastic can end up inside of us – for instance when we eat tuna that has ingested another fish that has eaten plastic that has in turn eaten another fish with plastic. Many plastics contain toxic chemicals and those chemicals are becoming part of our food web. 

The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) estimated that land-based sources are responsible for up to 80% of marine debris and the remainder was due to sea-based activities.  Below is a summary of the sources based on GESAMP reports.

Marine debris from land-based sources include the following:

  •  Storm water discharges Storm drains collect runoff water generated during heavy rain events. The drains directly discharge this wastewater into nearby streams, rivers or the ocean.  Rubbish from streets can be washed into storm drains and is then discharged straight into the ocean or to streams/rivers which, in turn, may carry the rubbish to the ocean.
  • Combined Sewer Overflows Combined sewers carry sewage as well as storm water. Under normal weather conditions, sewage is carried to a wastewater treatment facility where non-sewage wastes are filtered out.  However, during heavy rains the handling capacity of the wastewater treatment system may be exceeded and the sewage plus storm water is then not treated, but is directly discharged into nearby rivers or oceans. This waste can include rubbish such as condoms, tampon applicators, syringes and street litter. Waste from combined sewer overflows has been estimated to be one of the major land-based sources of plastic marine debris in the USA.
  • Littering The litter includes items such as food packaging and beverage containers, cigarette butts and plastic beach toys. Fishermen may leave behind fishing gear.  Litter from inland areas can become marine debris if it gets into streams or rivers. In this way marine debris may result from rubbish left by workers in forestry, agriculture, construction and mining operations.

  • Solid Waste Disposal and Landfills Run-off from landfills that are located in coastal areas or near to rivers may find its way into the marine environment.  For example, in the USA many estuaries have been contaminated by garbage from nearby solid waste sites.  In addition to loss from landfills, garbage may be lost to the marine environment during its collection or transportation.  Illegal dumping of domestic or industrial wastes into coastal and marine waters is another source of marine debris.

  • Industrial Activities Industrial products may become marine debris if they are improperly disposed of on land or if they are lost during transport or loading/unloading at port facilities.  A well-known example is small plastic resin pellets, about 2-6 mm in diameter, which are the raw material for the manufacture of plastic products.  These pellets have been released into the marine environment from accidental spillage during production and processing, transport and handling.

All types of boats and ships and offshore industrial platforms are potential sources of marine debris.  Ocean-based sources of marine debris include:

  •  Commercial Fishing: Commercial fishermen generate marine debris when they fail to retrieve fishing gear or when they discard fishing gear or other rubbish overboard. Debris resulting from commercial fishing includes nets, lines and ropes, strapping bands, bait boxes and bags, gillnet or trawl floats plus galley wastes and household trash. 
  • Recreational Boaters: Boaters may deposit garbage overboard such as bags, food packaging and fishing gear. 
  • Merchant, Military and Research Vessels: Rubbish from vessels may be accidentally released or blown into the water or may be deliberately thrown overboard.
  • Offshore Oil and Gas Platforms and Exploration: Activities on oil and gas platforms may generate items which are deliberately or accidentally released into the marine environment including hard hats, gloves, 55-gallon storage drums, survey materials and personal waste. Undersea exploration and resource extraction also contribute to marine debris.

Plastic waste takes a toll on wildlife and the economy.  As I reported in the August 2014 Clean Economy Bulletin the UN Environment Programme Year Book, estimates that plastic waste costs $13 billion annually in direct damage to marine ecosystems.  This figure does not include the additional costs of fishing equipment fouled by plastic material and reduced tourism due to polluted beaches.

Oregon’s beaches are actually quite clean compared to many places due in part to the tremendous beach clean up efforts organized by SOLVE, Surf Rider and others.  And lots of beach-goers, like me, pick garbage as we go about our strolls and hikes and jogs. 

However, the only way to keep plastic from killing sea life, fouling our beaches and finding it’s ways into our very bodies is to capture it at the source.

This is one area where individual consumer choices matter.  The more of us who choose not to use single-use disposal plastic items like beverage bottles, plastic shopping bags, styrofoam containers, the less of those things will wind up in our fish and birds.  One of my recent pet peeves is how frequently restaurants atomatically give plastic drinking straws with a glass of water.   Amazingly, these seemingly benign items make it into the top ten list of the Center for Marine Conservation’s “Dirty Dozen” of trash items commonly found in international beach clean-ups.  (I am training myself to ask waiters not to bring me drinking straws just like I ask them to hold the butter on my toast.

Finally, while reducing single-use disposable items is an important step, it’s not emough.  Significantly reducing the amount of plastic in the oceans and the food web will require us to alter our overall patterns of consumption and waste management.  It will require us buy less plastic stuff in general, especially poorly made stuff that is simply going to break and be discarded.  Buying products that are durable and made from biodegradable materials will help.  Buying less stuff in general, fewer products we really don’t need in the first place, will help more. 







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Cylvia is a speaker, writer and teacher of Economic Evolution.  She is an award winning New Economy leader who is known for speaking truth to power.  

She is faculty in the Sustainability Department, College of Agriculture, Oregon State University and is founder and director of The ReThink.    

She is a smart systems thinker who understands and is able to describe the deeper connections between seemingly unrelated issues. She is also the former First Lady of Oregon.


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