Problems of Plastic
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[left: A turtle deformed by
To marine animals, these items can be a floating minefield. Plastic, whether it is for a container, a wrapper, or the product itself, has become an everyday part of our lives. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; plastic is also the material diabetics use for their disposable syringes; arthritic patients have for their replaced hips; and construction workers wear to protect their heads; but, when plastic reaches our waters, whether it be plastic bags or drifting fish nets, it poses a threat to the animals that depend on the oceans for food. To a sea turtle, a floating plastic bag looks like a delicious jellyfish. Plastic pellets, the small hard pieces of plastic from which plastic products are made, look like delicious fish eggs to seabirds. Drifting nets entangle birds, fish and mammals, making it difficult, if not impossible to move or eat. As our consumption of plastic mounts, so too does the danger to marine life.
Before the days of plastic, when fishermen dumped their trash overboard or lost a net, it consisted of natural materials: metal, cloth or paper, that would either sink to the bottom or biodegrade quickly. But plastic remains floating on the surface, the same place where most food sources are found, and can remain so for 400 years. Plastic is durable and strong; just the qualities that make it so desirable to humans makes it highly dangerous when it reaches the ocean.
In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage was being dumped into the ocean every year. That's more than 1.5 million pounds per hour. More than 85% of this trash was estimated to come from the world's merchant shipping fleet in the form of cargo-associated wastes. According to the Academy, the United States could be the source of approximately one third of this ocean pollution.
Fortunately, since 1988, it has been illegal for ships to dump plastics into the ocean. However, that law is difficult to enforce, and cannot account for the thousands of miles of driftnets and other gear lost by fishermen, which can ensnare and kill birds diving for the fish below, or wrap around migrating dolphins, turtles or humpback whales.
The Garbage Patch
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean sits a toxic waste dump of 7 million tons of plastics, spanning twice the size of Texas. Innocent birds and sea life eat from the "garbage patch" mistaking the plastics for food, blocking their digestive system or killing them from toxicity. These plastics also leach PCBs and other harmful chemicals into the water, over time causing disease and infertility around the world.
Watch a video about the garbage patch!
In the late 1970s, scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory concluded that plastic entanglement was killing up to 40,000 seals a year. Annually, this amounted to a four to six percent drop in seal population beginning in 1976. In 30 years, a 50% decline in Northern Fur Seals has been reported.
Along Florida's coasts, brown pelicans diving for fish sometimes dive for the bait on a fisherman's line. Cutting the bird loose only makes the problem worse, as the pelican gets its wings and feet tangled in the line, or gets snagged onto a tree.
Sea turtles often mistake plastic soda rings, plastic bags, Styrofoam particles and plastic pellets as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world's approximately 250 species of seabirds.
Wildlife is not the only area to suffer from the effects of marine debris. Plastic bags are the leading external cause of marine engine damage in Massachusetts. Other plastic items foul propellers and interfere with fishing tackle.
What you can do:
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Look for alternative materials or avoid excessive packaging when deciding on purchases. Use paper bags, milk and juice in cardboard, and cloth diapers. Insist on paper bags and glass bottles.
Recycle. Many communities currently offer pick-up recycling programs for #1 and #2 plastics. Other forms of plastic may be accepted by a local recycling business. If your community doesn't have a recycling program, contact your city or town hall to request one.
Educate others about the problem of marine debris, enhancing "voluntary compliance through awareness."
Many laws have been created to restrict industries from dumping materials into the water. However, many laws remain weak, and many countries do not restrict water pollution.
In the United States, the Clean Water Act was written to completely put an end to all dumping of pollutants into water. The law has not been that effective in many areas, but in other locations, it has achieved its goals. Since the Clean Water Act, other legislation has been passed as well. Now, eleven different federal government agencies and 21 federal government programs all monitor the quality of water and regulate pollution.
The world has spent tremendous sums of money trying to clean up water. From 1972-1990, the US spent over $250 billion. Many non-governmental projects are also being carried out in an effort to clean up the water. Industries are beginning to reduce the amount of chemicals they dump into water, and environmental groups are participating in clean-up projects.
The plastics industry, blamed for some of the worst pollution of the water, is making its products degradeable. However, many environmentalists think this is hardly enough. How often to you think about the packaging of the products you are buying and where that packaging will end up when you are done with it? Remember to REDUCE, REUSE, And RECYCLE. Stop buying products in plastic containers and make a big difference for the future of our oceans.
Source courtesy of: http://www.whoi.edu/science/B/people/kamaral/plasticsarticle.html, http://library.thinkquest.org/26026/Environmental_Problems/water_pollution_-_effects.html, http://www.chem.duke.edu/~jds/cruise_chem/oceans/human.html, http://library.thinkquest.org/26026/Environmental_Problems/water_pollution.html, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLrVCI4N67M