Students on campus buy sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap, drink from disposable water and soda bottles and fill the trash bins in their dorms to the rim every week. But what happens to this trash when it gets thrown out? CONNPIRG held a showing of “A Plastic Ocean” to raise awareness of the negative effects our plastic use has on us and our world.
Craig Leeson made a documentary about blue whales to film the elusive creatures himself. While underwater off the coast of Sri Lanka, he noticed tons of trash floating on the surface of the ocean. Considering the area Leeson and his team was filming in was closed off to fishers and far from the beach, they were shocked to see so much plastic and oil. After making this discovery, Leeson set out to record the impact of plastic on oceans and their creatures across the world.
In the U.S. alone, 38 billion water bottles are thrown out every year. In addition to this, almost every single plastic ever made still exists on this planet at some level, and eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans each year. In the western Mediterranean, there is a two to one ratio between plastic and plankton.
Five trillion pieces of plastic—usually tiny microplastics—are in our oceans. When consumed by wildlife, these plastics are toxic and can cause death or illness. Leeson skimmed the ocean’s surface at different points across the world, and wherever he skimmed, he found sizable amounts of microplastics. He also found dead fish full of plastic, eggs mixed with plastic pellets and crabs using crocs as shells. When small pieces of plastic are digested by smaller fish and those fish are eaten by larger animals, the plastic is transferred up the food chain. This even comes back to people, since the digested plastic chemicals enter the muscles of the fish we consume. In fact, 25 percent of fish sold in grocery stores contain plastic.
In Hong Kong, a local company dumped tons of plastic pellets into the ocean and they washed up onto the beaches and killed many fish. Once the populace had been informed, many of them came to the beach to help clean up the pollution, but it was impossible to pick up all of it.
Seabirds, such as those in Sydney, Australia, also consume oil and plastic. Leeson and a seabird biologist found a baby seabird and had it regurgitate the contents of its stomach into a bin. In this bird, which had never been to the sea itself, there were several large pieces of plastic and globs of oil which its parents had fed it. When they opened the stomachs of several dead adult seabirds, they found them completely full of plastic. Some of these pieces were large and sharp and had probably caused the bird a lot of pain. In one bird alone, they found 234 pieces of plastic which, according to the biologist, didn’t even break the record.
In the Philippines, Leeson showed children playing on mountains of trash, wading through waters of plastic sludge and harvesting plastics to sell. They live in an environment which causes flies to swarm them constantly, tuberculosis to run rampant and fish to die off. In Tuvalu, an island north of Fiji, homes are built on top of trash piles and pits. The people who live in these homes are prone to getting cancer and becoming infertile, and many have died from it.
Over 90 percent of American children aged six or older have traceable amounts of BPA—a hormone with estrogenic activity found in water bottles, juice boxes and baby bottles—in their bodies. Latex, silicone, clear plastics and colorants leech BPA and other similar chemicals, whereas glass and stainless steel tend to be safe. BPA interferes with the action of estrogen, which effects development in children and reproduction in adults. But with most foods and drinks packaged in BPA-filled containers, there is almost no avoiding it.
Scientists have created machines for Navy ships to use pyrogenesis to return plastic to its base elements using a plasma torch. These base elements can then be returned to the land or sea without causing problems to the environment. Leeson said if these machines were made on a larger scale, trash-covered islands like Tuvalu could be returned to their former state.
“This is the second time I’ve seen this,” Cole Stearns, a fourth-semester chemistry major, said. “I came last year, and seeing it a second time really cemented my idea that the major change that needs to come about is more than just everyone doing their part and recycling their plastic containers. It needs to be more of an institutional change.”
Fortunately, some progress has been made to fight plastic pollution. In Germany, recycling has become a lucrative industry, due to a law passed by the government which forces the manufacturers of plastics to be responsible for its recycling. Rwanda is one of the only countries to have completely banned plastic bags, while only individual states in the U.S. are considering the ban. In Haiti, the Plastic Bank provides a good income for those who collect plastics to recycle. In Ireland, a machine was developed to turn end-of-life plastics into dysol. Australian island Lord Howe has no landfills, and instead efficiently sorts, recycles and composts their trash. If these efforts were made across the globe, millions of people and sea animals would live much better and healthier lives.
“We need to always consider the individual action we can take to reduce our plastic use, but it requires us to look at the larger societal problem that plastic use has in our culture,” Chadwick Schroeder, a fourth-semester environmental studies and political science double major, said. “We use plastic in so many places that we really don’t need to. We should ask the corporations instead and the government to institute these programs that reduce plastic use, so that we have better options than just being forced to use plastic.”
Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.