Death by Plastic

Beach in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Picture by Susan White, USFWS (Wikimedia Commons)

By Genevieve Cottraux

The North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Pacific Trash Vortex, is an area twice the size of the state of Texas where marine debris—human-generated litter and garbage—stretches from the West Coast of North America to Japan, comprised of two main garbage patches—the Western Garbage Patch near Japan and the Eastern Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii.  According to the National Geographic Society, plastic waste accumulates because it isn’t biodegradable.  It instead breaks down into smaller micro-plastics.  Micro-plastics aren’t always visible to the human eye.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that “plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.”  In 2006, it was approximated that 46,000 pieces of floating plastic could be found in every square mile of ocean.

The National Geographic Society states:

Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre.  For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food.  Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs.

In addition to the deaths and injuries caused by marine animals ingesting the debris, plastics leach out harmful chemical pollutants such as bisphenol A (BPA).  Plastics also absorb pollutants like PCBS from the seawater, which in turn end up in the digestive tracts of animals when the plastics are ingested.

Prompted by the 2006 statistics on plastic debris in the oceans, National Geographic‘s Explorer and Environmental Storyteller David de Rothschild and his crew constructed the Plastiki, a 60-foot catamaran made of 12,500 reclaimed plastic water bottles.  To show the durability and indestructibility of the plastics, de Rothschild sailed the Plastiki 8,000 nautical miles over a period of 4 months.  As reported by CNN, “‘I was inspired to go out and really build Plastiki to showcase waste as a resource’ said de Rothschild.”

Also of danger to sea life is “ghost gear”—fishing gear lost, abandoned, and discarded in the oceans.  The group World Animal Protection reports that 640,000 tons of ghost gear are left in the oceans every year, injuring and killing hundreds of thousands of marine animals annually.

Artist and photographer Chris Jordan documents the North Pacific Gyre and its animal victims in his work, and will soon be releasing the film Midway: Message from the Gyre.  In his photo series Midway, images of albatross corpses with bellies full of plastic debris show just how destructive our consumer habits are.

One Green Planet’s #CrushPlasticMovement offers tips on how we can stop plastic waste.

Solutionary companies such as Norton Point are working to harvest and transform ocean plastic into socially conscious consumer goods like eyewear.  California became the first state in the country to ban single-use plastic bags.  San Francisco is the first city to implement a plastic water bottle ban.  Plastic water bottles 21 ounces or smaller can no longer be sold on public property, part of the city’s goal to achieve zero net waste by the year 2020.  Internationally, India’s capital city Delhi has banned all types of disposable plastics within the Delhi NCR (National Capital Region).  The law went into effect January 1, 2017.  The India Times reports that India is one of the top 4 plastic polluting countries and is responsible for 60% of the 8.8 million tons of plastics that end up in the ocean every year.

The Humane Party’s values include an ethical path that prizes conservation over waste and foregoes destructive practices.  The lives of thousands of marine animals are worth more than our convenience.