Ridding Oceans of Plastic Products

Posted in: United States Water News, Water Education
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Article courtesy of Jayati Ramakrishnan| September 12, 2015 | Marshfield News Herald |Shared as Educational Material

GOLD BEACH — The words “plastic bag ban” have been thrown around a lot at recent Gold Beach City Council meetings, with a citizen proposing a citywide ban on the bags in local grocery stores.

But a recent visitor to the community may have given citizens the best reason so far to consider the ban: the failing health of oceans.

John Bragg, a coastal training coordinator for the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, visited the Curry Public Library on Sept. 3 to talk about threats to the oceans and how humans can help reverse the damage. It was the first in a series of lectures called “Tales from the Black Hole.” 

“I called it that because there’s a lot of research about the ocean to the north of us. And to the south,” Bragg said.

He added, “But there’s not much known about this area, even to scientists.” 

Thus Bragg’s nickname for the South Coast — “The Black Hole” — was born.

Plastic Contamination

Bragg spent much of his lecture discussing one of the biggest problems facing our oceans today: plastic contamination.

Bragg showed the audience photos of a father and son in Manila Harbor, Phillippines. The two navigated a styrofoam raft down a river — so polluted it was impossible to see the water for all the garbage — collecting pieces of trash to recycle for money. According to Bragg, this is not an uncommon sight in the nations where most plastic is produced.

“Most plastic is produced in Asian countries,” Bragg said, “But most of it is used in the western world.”

Bragg discussed the importance of limiting plastic use, and the negative impact plastic has around the world.

“In 2007,” Bragg said, “BBC photographer Rebecca Hosking, on assignment in Midway Island,  witnessed dead albatrosses with stomachs full of plastic — toys, shopping bags, asthma inhalers…”

Bragg continued that the photographer began a campaign to ban plastic bags in her hometown in England, which launched a national discussion about plastic use. Her crusade led to plastic bag bans throughout the world — Dhaka, Bangladesh; Karnataka, India; and even Corvallis, Oregon. It also encouraged some retailers to start charging shoppers extra for plastic bags in an attempt to discourage their use.

But Our Beaches Are Clean…

The beaches on the South Coast don’t look that dirty. It’s possible to take a leisurely stroll down the coast and only see one or two bottles washed up on shore — or maybe a stray flip-flop. Seems manageable, right?  But as Bragg revealed in his presentation, the most troublesome pollutants are the ones we can barely see.

“One of the things scientists are most concerned about are microbeads,” he said.

Microbeads are plastic particles less than a millimeter in diameter. Commonly found in personal care products like toothpaste, shampoo and facial cleansers, microbeads are so tiny that they get washed down the drain, find their way into the water supply, and into the digestive systems of marine life — thus finding their way back to humans when they eat fish.

“Microbeads enter the food chain at the bottom and work their way up,” Bragg said. “We don’t really know the effect they have.”

Similarly, another barely-visible pollutant, microfibers, have been wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Found in products like fleece, microfibers enter the water supply when people wash their clothing items, and, like microbeads, find their way into the food chain.

“They get into the food supply and concentrate,” said Bragg. “Like microbeads, we don’t know what they do — but we know they’re there.”

Eventually, Bragg said, all this plastic in the ocean ends up somewhere — and that somewhere is usually in a patch in the ocean known as a “gyre.” 

Gyres are created by a system of currents that fence off areas in the ocean. Large quantities of garbage tend to concentrate in these areas.

There are major gyres in five regions: the Indian, northern and southern Pacific, and northern and southern Atlantic oceans.

While scientists disagree on the nature of gyres — some argue that there are none and that some areas just have a higher concentration of garbage; and others argue that there are many gathering points for garbage — most agree that there’s a serious problem with the amount of plastic making its way into the oceans.

“In the ocean, plastic loses the two things it needs to help degrade,” Bragg said. “Heat and ultraviolet light. Once it gets into the ocean, it stays there.”

Plastic also collects in glaciers, turning up in the ice sheets in polar regions.

“The ice freezes with plastic inside of it,” Bragg said, “There are roughly two orders of magnitude more plastic in the Arctic sea ice than there are in the Pacific Gyre.”

Bragg identified several other problems with the amount of plastic in the ocean. Products like bottle holders and rope can entangle and often kill birds, fish, mammals and reptiles.

Plastic also has the potential to compromise the health of various ecosystems.

“It can carry non-native species far beyond their historic geographic range,” Bragg said. 

Plastic can absorb pollutants, and carry and hold bacteria as well as species of bugs and other parasites, creating entirely new ecosystems.

“All the plastic in the ocean being brought into the food chain is bringing all kinds of nasty stuff with it,” Bragg said.

The amount of plastic in the oceans seems daunting — and it is. Nevertheless, Bragg highlighted some ways that citizens have tried to address the problem, and suggested some simple ways to alleviate it.

Bragg discussed a Bandon-based group called “Washed Ashore.” The group cleans up the local beaches, and uses the collected debris to craft large sculptures of marine life impacted by the pollution. The group travels around the country educating people about ocean pollution and sharing their artwork.

He also encouraged people to use reusable products, reduce the amount of waste they produce, recycle as much as possible, and attend beach cleanups.

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