Quantcast
Insights/Opinion

David Suzuki: We Have to Stop Killing Our Oceans With Plastic

Eight million tonnes. That’s how much plastic we’re tossing into the oceans every year! University of Georgia environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck says it’s enough to line up five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline in the world.

A study published by Jambeck and colleagues in the journal Science on Feb. 12 examined how 192 coastal countries disposed of plastic waste in 2010. The report, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, estimates that of 275 million tonnes of plastic generated, about eight million (based on a midpoint estimate of 4.8 million to 12.7 million tonnes) ends up in the seas—blown from garbage dumps into rivers and estuaries, discarded on beaches or along coastlines and carried to the oceans.

Plastic is everywhere in our seas. It accumulates on the sea floor and in sediments, washes up on coastlines and is taken up by fish and other sea creatures.

China tops the list of 20 countries responsible for 83 percent of “mismanaged plastic” in the oceans, sending between 1.32 and 3.53 million tonnes into the seas. The U.S., which has better waste-management systems, is number 20 on the list, responsible for 0.04 to 0.11 tonnes. Some countries in the top 20 don’t even have formal waste-management systems. The fear is that, as human populations grow, the amount of plastic going into the oceans will increase dramatically if countries don’t improve waste-management systems and practices—and reduce the amount of plastic they produce and use.

Scientists don’t know where most plastic ends up or what overall effect it’s having on marine life and food supplies. They do know that massive islands of plastic and other waste—some as large as Saskatchewan—swirl in five gyres in the north and south Pacific, north and south Atlantic and Indian oceans. But that’s only a small amount of the total.

Plastic is everywhere in our seas. It accumulates on the sea floor and in sediments, washes up on coastlines and is taken up by fish and other sea creatures. It affects birds, fish, mammals and other marine life. It eventually breaks down into smaller bits, which can look like fish eggs and get eaten by marine animals, but it never biodegrades. Those particles, or microplastics, just keep building up. They also absorb and concentrate toxic chemicals, poisoning the animals that consume them. Studies show that 44 percent of all seabird species have plastic in and around their bodies, and fish, birds, turtles and whales often become fatally entangled in plastic waste.

Even the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went down over the South China Sea in March 2014, was confounded when investigators looking for crash evidence kept finding plastic debris.

Humans depend on healthy oceans for food, water, air, recreation and transportation. Oceans contain more than 97 percent of the planet’s water and produce more than half the oxygen we breathe. They also absorb carbon—important to reducing global warming. Half the world’s people live in coastal zones, and ocean-based businesses contribute more than $500 billion a year to the global economy.

What we do to the oceans and the life therein, we do to ourselves. So what can we do to keep them—and us—healthy?

The report’s authors say reducing “mismanaged” plastic waste, regulating the amount of plastics that enter the waste stream and improving waste-disposal methods in the top 20 offending countries are all essential. But, Jambeck notes, “It’s not just about improving the infrastructure in other countries. There are things we can do in our daily lives to reduce the amount of waste plastic we all produce.”

Canada’s relatively good waste-disposal and recycling systems keep us off the 20 worst offenders list—but we can still do better. Reducing the amount of plastic we use is the first step. For consumers, that means avoiding overpackaged goods and unnecessary plastic items, such as bottled water, single-serve K-cup coffee pods and disposable products. We must also get better at reusing and recycling. According to a report by the U.S. non-profit As You Sow, plastic is the fastest-growing form of packaging, and only about 14 percent gets recycled.

Oceans and the life they support face numerous threats, from climate change to overfishing. Reducing the amount of plastic we dump into them is a challenge we can meet. Let’s get on it.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

8 Million Metric Tons of Plastic Dumped Into World’s Oceans Each Year

Undersea Superheroes Save Imperiled Marine Life

How Much Water Do You Use Each Day?

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Popular
Glyphosate applied to a North Yorkshire field. Chafer Machinery / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

EU Approval of Glyphosate Based on Review That Plagiarized Monsanto Studies

The European Union's license extension of the world's most popular weedkiller, glyphosate, was based on a review that heavily plagiarized industry studies, according to a report (pdf) commissioned by European parliamentarians (MEPs).

The new analysis released Tuesday compares whether a risk assessment of the controversial herbicide was actually authored by scientists representing Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) or by the European Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), an industry group that includes Monsanto, the manufacturer of glyphosate-based Roundup, in its ranks.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Rising temperatures and more frequent wildfires in Alaskan national parks could affect caribou's habitat and winter food sources. Zak Richter / NPS

To Preserve National Parks in a Warming World, Reconnect Fragmented Public Lands

By Stephen Nash

The Trump administration's decision to keep many U.S. national parks open during the current federal government shutdown, with few or no staff, spotlights how popular and how vulnerable these unique places are.

Some states, such as Utah and Arizona, have spent heavily to keep parks open rather than lose tourist revenues. Unfortunately, without rangers to enforce rules, some visitors have strewn garbage and vandalized scenic areas.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Emma Bray of Denver, a plaintiff on the youth-led climate lawsuit, Martinez v. COGCC. @youthvgov / Twitter

Colorado's Top Court Sides Against Youth in Major Anti-Fracking Case

Colorado's oil and gas industry breathed a sigh of relief on Monday after the state's highest court overturned a lower court decision that said state regulators must consider public health and the environment in permitting oil and gas production.

The unanimous ruling was a disappointment for the teenage plaintiffs, including high-profile climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who led the closely watched lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
The possible site of Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical's ethane cracker plant along the Ohio River, as seen from Moundsville, West Virginia. Brittany Patterson / Ohio Valley ReSource

Taking on Climate Change and Petrochemicals in the Ohio River Valley

When it comes to the fossil fuel industry, we've all heard the promises before: new jobs, economic growth and happier communities, all thanks to their generosity and entrepreneurial spirit.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Insights/Opinion

A Call for the Food Movement to Rally Behind the Green New Deal

By Ronnie Cummins

"The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan … Half measures will not work … The time for slow and incremental efforts has long past [sic]." - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then-candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Huffington Post, June 26, 2018

Keep reading... Show less
Oceans
The Great Australian Bight is home to one of only two southern right whale calving grounds in the world. Bob Adams / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Seismic Blasting Approved in the Great Australian Bight, Posing 'Lethal Threat' to Marine Life

Australia's petroleum regulator granted permission for seismic blasting in the Great Australian Bight, sparking fierce outcry from environmentalists over its threat to the area's marine life, whihc include endangered blue and southern right whales.

On Monday, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) gave the green light to oil and gas exploration services company PGS Australia's application for seismic surveys off the coast of South Australia's Kangaroo Island and Eyre Peninsula between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Frank Giustra

This Everest Greenhouse Is One of the Highest Gardens in the World

By Frank Giustra

Food has never been the main attraction—or even a side attraction—of my trekking adventures. Instead, it has primarily been an inconvenient necessity, largely consisting of rice, beans and other forms of sustenance. Without fresh vegetables, herbs and garlic, it all starts to taste the same after a day or two.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Madeleine_Steinbach / iStock / Getty Images

11 Surprising Benefits and Uses of Myrrh Oil

By Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD

You may be familiar with myrrh from Biblical stories even if you're not sure what it is.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!