Saturday, April 25, 2009

Marine Debris

I was sitting in the airport in San Francisco eagerly awaiting my plane to begin my journey back to Midway Atoll when I overheard a conversation. A woman was running back to her family waving a package in the air... "Look what I just found! Aren't they cool? It's a whole package of disposable toothbrushes! You use them once and throw them away!" I could feel my gut twinge as I listened to them 'oooo' and 'ahhhh' over the brightly colored plastic brushes... 6 to a pack.

All I could think of were the bodies of the albatross chicks I saw in November from last season and how every single one I looked at had a bolus of plastic in it's stomach when I looked. Mono filament fishing line, lighters, toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes, fishing floats, children's toys, bits of undistinguished plastic, bottle caps, lipstick tubes.... the list goes on and on. It's estimated that Albatross bring FIVE TONS of plastic marine debris to Midway Atoll EVERY year.

In November our group took to collecting lighters whenever we found them... We picked up 150 lighters even after a bag malfunction lost several on Eastern Island. This April we made a more conserted effort from the very begining of the trip. Every single person in the group participated, some passing me lighters as if they were covert secret messages. We collected 304.5 lighters in 6 days.

So why is it that we need to manufacture a toothbrush that you use only once, that goes on to last 100 years???? Where do people think these items end up? Many of us concientiously recycle every bit of plastic we can find and yet... some of this is still ending up in the oceans. 80% of the plastic in the ocean arrived there from stream and sewer run off. And not just from the coasts! A plastic bottle dropped in a storm sewer in South Dakota will make it's way along to a stream, then a river and eventually into the ocean where they float along, eventually becoming trapped in a current and grouping with other plastics.

Naturalist, Wayne Sentman, speaks to a group of visitors to Midway Atoll on the hazards of Marine Debris.

There are so many reasons this is a bad thing. Albatross ingest the plastic as they are feeding and return to feed this plastics to chicks in the nest. The chicks can't regurgitate and so they end us starving to death because the plastic makes then feel full. Turtles eat the plastic bags and die from stomach blockages. Larger bottles become brittle in the sun and break into smaller pieces. Many of these pieces have sharp edges which can perforate the stomach wall of any sea bird which eats it leading to massive infection and death. PCP and DDT is attracted to plastic bits. These toxins build up on the edges of the plastic... The bits break down into even smaller bits and are ingested by plankton and jellyfish... the toxins and plastic are condensed in the bottom of the food chain and has no where to go but up.... guess who is at the top...

So the next time you think, "Hey it isn't MY problem." Think again. This issue is touching us all.

A few things beyond just recycling that you can do to help:
1. Take tops off of plastic bottles. If they DO end up in the ocean they are more apt to fill with water and sink to the bottom, hopefully to be buried.
2. Participate in Beach and Roadway clean ups. Every bottle or piece of debris that is picked up from the road or beach and put in it's proper place to be disposed of is a piece of plastic that will not become marine debris.
3. Buy fewer plastics. Tracy Ammerman,Visitor Services Manager - Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, related how her purchasing decisions changed after experiencing the marine debris at Midway. She elected to spend $.50-cents more to buy a ceramic soap dish rather than a plastic one. Such a simple, every day item but a small price to pay to reduce the demand for plastics.
4. If you go on a cruise ship, encourage them to bring their garbage back to the US where it is more likely to be handled properly. Many cruise lines leave their garbage in foreign countries like Belize simply because it is less expensive. These countries are often ill equipped to handle the waste and it end up in run off and eventually in the oceans.
5. Encourage the manufacturers of your favorite products, by letters or email, to switch to shorter lived packaging. 100 years is too long for a bottle of laundry soap to stick around.


John W. Wall said...

Excellent post. I wonder about plastic lasting 100 years, though. I was under the impression that it lasts far longer, and that all the plastic that has ever been made is still with us.

Mark said...

Great post. I wish a lot of this trash would end up on people's front lawns. It would certainly kickstart their change in behavior.