But it doesn’t really matter what I think about the detritus I discover on my walks on the beach. Marine debris of any kind is not only ugly and unsightly; it is a threat to our marine environment and, thereby, us.
The Pacific Plastic Peril
The endangered Hawaiian monk seals—with a declining population of some 1,100 individuals foraging the waters of the main Hawaiian Islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—can and do get entangled in derelict fishing nets. If they cannot free themselves, like an estimated 100,000 other marine mammals in the north Pacific, they drown.
Green sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. Because they don’t break down, the ingested bags can block the turtle’s digestive system, eventually killing it.
It’s not only the marine critters who are at peril. Seabird chicks die before they even fledge by ingesting pieces of plastic fed to them by their parents. Mistaking it for squid and fish eggs, the parent scoops up these deadly bits of bottle caps, cigarette lighters, fishing lures and tooth brushes and regurgitates it for the fledgling to eat. Because the young chicks do not yet have the ability to expel their bolus, like their parents, the chicks starve to death—with a full belly.
Plastic is Forever
With stories of boats dumping trash and sewage at sea and cargo containers falling off ships during storms, you might think marine trash originates on the water. But about four-fifths of marine litter comes from land, swept by wind off the beach and washed by rain down streams and rivers and out to sea. We even flush it down our drains as the scrubbing particles in our household cleaners. As tiny as these pellets are, research shows the chemical components of plastic—no matter the size—can harm animals and, yes, humans, too.
Nearly 90% of floating marine litter is plastic. On land, plastic takes decades, maybe even centuries, to break down. In water, the degradation process is lengthened, as algae and barnacles that opportunistically grow on the plastic bottles and bits block the sun’s ultraviolet and decomposing rays.
Here’s a disturbing story: Sixty years after a WWII seaplane was shot down in 1944, a piece of plastic bearing its serial number was found in a dead albatross stomach.
A Plastic-Centric Society
Unfortunately, we humans like our plastic. While the first plastic product given a trade name—celluloid—was invented as early as 1869, every day use of plastic kick-started in 1946 when Earl S. Tupper introduced a tumbler, and launched Tupperware Home Parties, Inc. Now, our cars contain plastic parts. Our toys are made of plastic. Boosted by the advent of microwave ovens, our cooking containers are made of plastic. As our world speeds up, we turn to more and more plastic to simplify our lives—from single-serving water bottles to individually-wrapped slices of cheese.
As much as we would like to believe otherwise when we place our plastics in their special bins and stash them curbside for our trash collectors to pick up, only 3.5% of plastics are recycled in any way. Sixty-three pounds of plastic packaging per person per year goes into landfills in the U.S.
Estimates of plastic in the world’s oceans exceed 100 million tons and scientists expect the number to continue rising, given the popularity of plastic containers. The average American used 223 pounds of plastic in 2001. The plastics industry expects per-capita usage to increase to 326 pounds by the end of the decade. As such, scientists predict a 10-fold increase in ocean plastics by the year 2010, which would bring the ratio of surface plastic to zooplankton in the north Pacific to 60:1 by weight. That’s not good news for our seabirds.
Floating Garbage Dump
You may have heard about a garbage heap the size of Texas floating in the central Pacific. The stories are true. It exists. It’s known by some as the Eastern Garbage Patch and by others as the Great Pacific Garbage Dump. It’s billed as the world’s largest trash dump, bigger than any on land.
Rotating high-pressure systems create what’s called “gyres,” circular ocean currents that suck in marine debris. Some floating plastics spin in these gyres for decades. Others break down into smaller pieces, are eaten by birds and fish, or sink and become part of the ocean substrate. When lost fishing gear—lines and nets—sinks, it attaches to reefs, entangling and killing coral polyps.
There are nine major oceanic gyres around the globe. The North Pacific Gyre sits just north of Hawaii, usually between 30 and 40 degrees latitude north and 130 to 155 degrees longitude west. When it moves south, the floating dump belches up debris onto Hawaii’s shores. The islands and atolls in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument receive the brunt of the garbage beast’s burps.
Derelict Fishing Nets
For years, responsible longline fishermen voluntarily collected derelict nets and brought them home, helping clean up the ocean but adding the debris to landfills. Then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded the Honolulu Derelict Net Recycling Program. Now, when fishermen bring these nets home from their long journeys to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, they deposit the mass in a special container at the Honolulu Harbor. With the help of local businesses, the net is collected, transported, cut into smaller pieces and then incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility. Through this process, the debris is recycled to create electricity. To date, over 23 metric tons have been recycled.
And, yet, there is much, much more still floating in our seas. NOAA sends out clean-up crews—divers and boats—but they can’t keep up. Especially since the government-funded clean-up budget keeps getting cut.
Private individuals and non-profit organizations regularly step up. The Hawaii Wildlife Fund organizes shoreline cleanups on Hawaii’s Big Island.
On Maui, a group of marine tour operators, educators and conservationists created the Maui Reef Fund, a program to help protect Maui’s coastal environment.
Suzanne Frazer and Dean Otsuki of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii (BEACH) won the 2008 Living Reef Award for their efforts in preserving Hawaii’s reefs. The nongovernmental organization organizes litter prevention campaigns, makes presentations to school and community groups and sponsors regular beach litter patrols on Oahu.
Donna Kahakui solo-paddled her canoe around each of the main Hawaiian Islands, even crossing the oft-treacherous channels between them, to raise awareness of the ocean environment. She created the not-for-profit organization called Kai Makana to motivate people to protect, preserve and respect the ocean as an ecosystem that is central to our own health, wellness and happiness.
Still, the plastic and debris continue to grow. It’s like digging a hole in the sand. For every scoop sand you remove, another pile falls back in. Most experts agree that money alone won’t solve the problem. The solution will come when we change our lifestyle: When we reduce our dependence on plastic. Here’s how we can start:
What Can We Do?
(This comes courtesy of the Conservation Council for Hawaii.)
* Reduce, reuse, recycle
* Put litter in its place
* Use reusable shopping bags instead of plastic disposable bags—check out ecobags.com.
* Buy products made from recycled materials if possible—check out recycledproducts.com.
* Use water filters, water coolers and refillable stainless steel bottles instead of purchasing bottled water—check out kleankanteen.com.
* Buy soft drinks in aluminum cans or glass, which can be redeemed and recycled.
* Purchase biodegradable and non-petroleum-based paper goods and utensils for parties and events—check out styrophobia.com.
* Encourage restaurants to use biodegradable, non-pretroleum-based, take-out food containers and utensils; better yet, bring your own—check out lifewithplastic.com.
* Avoid over-packaged merchandise, disposable lighters, razors, cameras and other throw-away items—check out ecocycle.org.
* Learn more about marine debris and the North Pacific Gyre floating garbage mass—check out algalita.org.
* Ask elected officials to identify and reduce the sources of marine debris—check out capitol.hawaii.gov, house.gov and senate.gov for contact information.
* Ask manufacturers to use recyclable plastic in bottle caps—check out americanchemistry.com/plastics for industry contact information.
* Ask dairies and beverage companies to stop putting plastic caps on milk and juice cartons.
* Participate in beach clean-ups and learn about marine debris in Hawaii—check out b-e-a-c-h.org, wildhawaii.org, pacificwhale.org and kaimakana.org.
* Support environmental organizations, such as Conservation Council for Hawaii, that are working on marine debris and wildlife issues—check out conservehi.org.