Oceans play a vital role in life on earth, a role that affects humans in addition to whales, fish and turtles. Around 18 billion pounds of plastic are leaked into the ocean every single year — that’s equivalent to 1 billion elephants, 80 million blue whales or 25,000 Empire State Buildings.
If plastic pollution continues at the current rate as now, then by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish. Ocean pollution not only threatens animals with extinction, but also impacts the oxygen we breathe, global ecosystems and our water supply. Not only will plastic pollution cause the extinction of many marine plants and animals, but even the phrase “plenty of fish in the sea” will become obsolete.
Plastic is nonbiodegradable and various plastics can remain in our oceans for up to 1,000 years. Therefore more effort needs to be directed at reducing plastic pollution in the ocean to protect wildlife, our planet and the health of all of mankind.
Having our oceans become filled with plastics, microplastics and other debris is detrimental for several reasons. First of all, plastic in the ocean can be consumed by fish and other wildlife. This results in either the animals confusing the plastic for food and ingesting it, or having the toxins in the plastic being introduced to the food chain.
Plastic cannot be digested or excreted by animals, so over time the plastic starves the animals. Moreover, if those animals that ingest the plastic don’t die, the toxins introduced into the food chain will threaten them.
In addition, those toxins will eventually make it back onto our plates, threatening the health of humans, as they bioaccumulate in marine life. Toxins from plastic include lead, cadmium, mercury, diethylhexyl phthalate, or DEHP, and BPA, just to name a few. These substances are directly linked to cancers, hormonal issues, birth defects, immune system problems and childhood developmental issues. Ocean pollution is that serious for every organism in the food chain.
So what can we do to combat this issue? I give credit to California, the first state to pass a statewide ban on plastic straws. In 2019, Assembly Bill 1884 was enacted by former California Gov. Jerry Brown; it prohibits sit-down eateries from automatically providing customers with plastic straws and can only be given upon request.
Although this is a step in the right direction, banning straws alone will not save our oceans. Plastic straws contribute to a very small percentage of ocean pollution; the leading culprits of ocean pollution are plastic bottles and food packaging. More action needs to be taken to truly solve this issue.
Another possible solution would be to adopt universal business standards that require corporations to be held accountable for the large amounts of plastic they produce each year. In this way, the government would require them to develop and/or adopt mitigating solutions to alleviate this issue.
Speaking of accountability, in March 2020 the Plastic Pollution Coalition and Earth Island Institute sued numerous large corporations for damages to repair the problem of plastic waste. These corporations are large, if not the largest, contributors to ocean pollution, and yet they deny accountability and shift a portion of the blame onto consumers for not recycling their products.
Unfortunately, even if more consumers were to recycle their plastic bottles, this would not solve the overlying issue. The plastic problem those large companies, and many others, have created requires a fundamental shift in their production systems. It is not just a necessity; it is vital to create legislation around plastic production to slow the deterioration of our planet.
But reducing plastic waste — a large contributor to ocean pollution — isn’t just the responsibility of environmentalists. This is a shared responsibility of all humans. While we wait for laws and policies to hold corporations accountable, we can continue to do our part in reducing plastic waste by remembering to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Leslie Solorzano is a teaching associate at California State University at San Jose.