On July 20, 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and spoke those famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Since then, the scientific community has had its eyes pointed upwards when right below our feet is a whole other world we need to explore. The World Wildlife Foundation shockingly points out that science knows “more about the moon than the ocean floor.” Earth’s oceans hold some of the greatest mysteries left for mankind, and with our climate crisis nearing the point of no return, we may not ever get to fully explore that great frontier. Our plastic usage over the last seventy years has put us in a dire position, and that is why it is urgent that we reduce plastic in our oceans to save our planet. By exposing the truths about the issues facing our oceans, and in turn, our bodies and then reflecting on how our actions lead us to this point, we can shed some light on new ways to create a healthier future for our oceans and ourselves.
In order to make informed decisions about saving our oceans, we must understand what needs to be fixed. In 2018, National Geographic reported that 8.8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year; that, “is the equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe” (Parker, 2021). Due to oceanic currents, a lot of this pollution has found its way into clusters, the largest of which, is known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the GPGP for short (The Great Pacific, 2021). The GPGP is one of five clusters in the world and is roughly twice the size of Texas; however, not all trash floats (The Great Pacific, 2021). Over time, millions of tons of this plastic waste has sunk to the ocean floor (Gibbens, 2019). The Mariana Trench is believed to be the deepest part of the ocean at 36,201 feet, making it one of the most difficult spots for scientists to reach. Yet in 2019, pictures revealed plastic grocery bags and other plastic debris at the bottom (Gibbens, 2019) demonstrating that no aquatic life remains untouched by pollution. Plastic in our water is being consumed by all animals in the food chain, including humans. When plastic is eaten by fish and other aquatic life, the chemicals from the plastic are absorbed into its body (The Great Pacific, 2021). When that animal is eaten, either by another animal or humans, those chemicals pass into the consumer. That is not where the major impact on humans stops though. Earth’s oceans play a critical role in our fight against climate change. As global warming ramps up, the oceans can no longer absorb the amount of carbon dioxide in the air (NASA). The excess of carbon dioxide is making our oceans more acidic. As more gasses are trapped in our atmosphere, the water gets hotter (NASA). This causes major shifts in the weather and can cause damage to oceanic habitats, such as coral bleaching (NASA). Pollution like this is killing some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in our world. If we continue at this rate, it is estimated that by 2050, there will be – ton for ton – more plastic than fish in the ocean (Parker, 2021). As we can see, there has been major damage done, but how did we get here?
Studies show that out of all plastic produced globally since the 1950’s, only 9% of it has been recycled (UNE). The rest is either in landfills, incinerated, or in oceans (Parker, 2021). Single-use plastics are one of the most common types of pollutants making up about 50% of all plastic produced a year (UNE). It is estimated that a million plastic drinking bottles are purchased per minute globally, and approximately 5 trillion single-use grocery bags are used every year (UNE). Single-use plastic has its uses in places, such as the medical field that require sterile conditions, and instances where food needs to be kept fresh longer. However, most instances of single-use plastics are excessive and unnecessary. In 2019, Amazon used approximately 500 million pounds of plastic packaging, and 22 million pounds of it ended up in the ocean (Vetter, 2020). Plastics like this rarely make it to a recycling plant. A large amount of plastic gets put into the wrong bin or is contaminated and cannot be processed (How Does Plastic). For decades, the United States relied heavily on China’s recycling plants, often sending around 16 million tons of plastic a year to be recycled (Cho, 2020). This agreement ended in 2018 when China banned the import of plastics that were not “up to new, more stringent purity standards” (Cho, 2020). The United States’ reliance on the infrastructure of China meant that we never built up our own industry that can handle the amount of waste we produce. As the excess plastic is taken to landfills, it often gets blown away and makes its way into the drainage system and meets with the beach and river pollution and heads for the ocean. These examples are a small fraction of what brought us here, and yet, add to the dire situation. There are steps to fight back and we are going to explore below some steps to increase the fight against plastic.
Right now, there’s a large push for companies like Amazon to switch to more sustainable packaging. The goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of packaging. By using items that are biodegradable, compostable, or plant based, we can reduce the amount of packaging produced and thrown out each year. While this move is vital to saving our ecosystems, there will still be piles of packaging entering our oceans and landfills. To reduce this, the United States needs to implement a federal agency dedicated to recycling and sustainability. It is time for the United States to develop a recycling industry that can keep up with the needs of our country. By creating federal standards that corporations must meet, we can create national systemic change. For example, any company that employs at least 500 people should be required to use a minimum amount of recycled or other sustainable packaging in their manufacturing or packaging process. In addition to this, the Fish and Wildlife Service should be expanded to assist in the regulation of fishing equipment that gets left in the ocean. Ideally, one of these agencies would be dedicated to the assistance of cleaning the plastic from the ocean. Being a United Nations leader, the United States can also push for global support in the effort to clean our oceans, with the incentive that clean oceans and beaches equals more tourism. Overall, the average person can make small adjustments, such as using reusable shopping bags and learning how to properly separate recyclables, but the major changes will need to come from within our government and large corporate entities. These shifts can be a large undertaking, but the results will be worth it.
If we implement these solutions, we will quickly see a shift in the health of our oceans. Sustainable packaging will spare limited resources due to its ability to be reused and repurposed, as it is easily recyclable. Developing a recycling industry will create permanent jobs nationwide, leading to an overall lower unemployment rate, adding a boost to our economy. The new government agency and expansion of the Fish and Wildlife Service would also open new working positions. On top of that, removing recyclables from landfills will dramatically reduce the amount that enters our ocean, making the job of cleaning our oceans an achievable task. With more of the plastic either being reused or going to recycling plants, the amount of methane produced from landfills will decrease (Cho, 2020). This reduction of methane will help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which will let our oceans cool again. We will be able to see previously bleached coral return to its beautiful natural state. Just these few changes can make lasting impacts toward saving our planet and oceans.
By gaining deeper insight into the state of our oceans and what contributed to the pollution, we have the ability to move forward with structural change so our oceans can thrive. Although I may not have been alive to watch the moon landing, I know that as our scientists go where no submarine has gone before, I will get to witness something truly awe-inspiring.
Essay by: Sam Campbell
Arizona State University