In less than ve months, I will be engaged in a study abroad program in Baja California, Mexico, working alongside a team of marine ecologists, engineers, and conservationists, all of whom are diligently striving to innovate new strategies to protect local ecosystems, in particular, sea turtle populations. As it has been circulated in the public eye for more than a decade, sea turtles are killed at extraordinary rates by marine plastic pollution and bycatch. The reduction of plastic straws by many food chains has had a relatively minuscule impact. Sea turtle deaths (as well as the deaths of seabirds and other marine megafauna) are a complex and ongoing issue, much of which revolves around eco-friendly packaging, not just performative stunts that appear eco-friendly. Companies must invest in community outreach, scientic collaboration, and sustainable manufacturing, just like the mission statement that Dura-Pack uses. We must be committed to our carbon footprint and the often-misunderstood ramications of plastic packaging on the world’s oceans.
Before examining my proposed methodologies of marine plastic reduction, an establishment of context is necessary. Learning about the socioeconomics of the issue has driven me to seek out this Study Abroad in Baja, as well as galvanized me to connect with my university’s faculty that are more knowledgeable and experienced regarding the issue. Dr. Jesse Senko, a lead pioneer in sea turtle conservation and my academic mentor, has worked in local shing villages in Baja for many years, and has witnessed the devastating consequences of corporate mistreatment of our oceans. Nations like the U.S., China, Canada, or the European states produce and distribute the vast majority of plastic waste products, while developing countries like those in Central and South America or Southeast Asia bear the brunt of the resulting ecological damage.
I have had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Senko, who works with both local communities and academic resources to innovate sustainable shing practices. Though multifaceted, his lecture on what made his research in Mexico successful boils down to the following factors: the engagement of indigenous shers from the beginning, an emphasis on community livelihoods, a utilization of strong, market forces, international cooperation, and a co-development of solutions by both company and community.
That leads me to my rst strategy of reducing ocean plastics: education and media attention. Though it wasn’t nearly enough, Starbucks and other food chains would have never mandated paper straws or strawless lids if it wasn’t for market pressure stirred up by upset voters and consumers. As the media circulated images of dead sea turtles with six pack plastic rings around their throats, consumers became angry, leading to reinforced pressure on the corporation (and others like it) to cut back on plastic. In the business-geared economy of the rst world, the possibility of wide scale change is directly related to the issue’s media attention. Furthermore, marine sustainability is often woefully underrepresented in primary and secondary education, and even at the collegiate level. Fortunately, Arizona State University puts a heavy emphasis on sustainability and the link between human behavior and global-scale trends. With education, ignorance is dispelled and the veil that separates the industrialized world from the developing, vanishes.
In that vein, much of large scale change directly ows from legislative action, which in turn is inuenced by political engagement and activism. That is why I have been dedicated to community engagement throughout high school, founding the Activism for our Lives club, during which we encouraged other students’ participation in and awareness of climate and marine welfare rallies. I remember one such instance; at the 2020 Climate Summit, environmentalist communities across the state came together at the Capitol, calling for stricter regulations on corporate packaging, a renewed investment in recycling, and public initiatives for cleaner outdoor spaces.
My role and other activists’ roles in ending marine plastic pollution are components of a much-wider multidimensional effort. In truth, such intricate global issues demand the necessity of coordination between resource experts, oceanographers, sociologists, material scientists, waste management ofcials, behavioral scientists, and arguably most importantly, companies that use plastics whether for their products or their packaging.
Though I will be visiting Central America soon, it will not be the rst time. Last spring, I visited Costa Rica with my family, a nation whose economic livelihood depends much on tourism. Staying outside the city on the coast, we could see rsthand the inequity that the rst world generates: white sand beaches strewn with single-use plastic and sea coves festooned with patches of packaging trash. Costa Rica may also be the most developed country in Latin America, with more efcient waste disposal than its neighbors. With poorer infrastructure, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Belize suffer from huge litter concentrations; due to ocean currents and American negligence, the concentration of trash in the Caribbean is four times higher than the global average (Ocean Conservancy, 2017). Not only does plastic litter devalue natural splendor, but it photodegrades into microplastic, a carcinogen in untreated water. Thus, an investment in marine education, biodegradable plastic, and sustainable waste management, coupled with a reduction in overall packaging, would greatly reduce the inux of plastic in the world’s oceans and alleviate the strain on developing countries we are responsible for.
Essay by: Benjamin Ash
Barrett the Honors College at Arizona State University