I’ve never seemed to walk a beach without picking up at least a handful of rubbish. Mainly small plastics or as I’m sure you’ve heard, micro plastics. Micro plastics is the technical term given to any fragment of plastic that is less than 5 mm in size (NOAA). I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled to different countries however seeing the beautiful coastlines and oceans littered with plastic is deeply disappointing to say the least. Almost all countries don’t realize the devastating effects that plastic pollution has on our oceans and lakes. Not out of ignorance but out of not having the knowledge or awareness. At least that’s what I like to think. In Morocco it was surprisingly horrendous. I had never seen so much plastic covering every bit of land and water. Not only that but sewage and construction waste water seeping into the ocean right in front of my eyes. I watched people with plastic juice or water bottles finish their drink and then toss it. Anywhere. It didn’t matter if they were on their fishing boat or going for a walk. Most beaches had trash bins which was refreshing to see. Unfortunately not many people used them. During my month and a half stay I saw a garbage truck only twice. Most of the time I would watch locals dump the bins behind a large pile of boulders to burn, right on the beach where I was surfing. On one of the calm days my friend Megan and I went out paddle boarding. The water was pristine and clear, then the plastic started to float by. Our relaxing paddle turned into maneuvering our way all along the shoreline picking up plastic. We didn’t paddle more than a mile away from the beach where we launched when we decided to slowly make our way back. We carefully put the rubbish under the front strap of the board, making sure nothing dropped back in the ocean. I dream of the day I won’t feel the need to pick up rubbish that other people have left behind.
Every year 5 to 14 million tons of plastic flows into our oceans. That’s about the weight of seventy thousand blue whales. Now for a moment here I want you to imagine being a fish. You’re gently swimming through a freshwater lake, a river or the ocean. You see all the little microorganisms floating by and the algae and seaweed swaying from the current. But something catches your eye, a bright white little ball tumbling through the water right next to your small scaly body. Now remember you’re a fish, you have no idea what the difference is between microplastics and what you should be eating. So guess what you do! You eat it. Because you’re a fish! You continue swimming along and you come across more “food”. Do you now see what’s happening? Micro plastics start off as large pieces of plastic that have been dumped or have washed into the ocean, the sunlight, heat, wind and waves break down the large pieces into these micro plastics. As a fish, plankton, bivalves and even whales, these pieces look just like the food they eat.
Now let’s focus on whales for a moment, the oceans gentle giants. How many times have you read a headline that states “Dead whale washed up on shore with plastic in its digestive system”. I’m sure the headline wasn’t as long as that and it most likely had the amount of plastic found inside the creatures body, you get the gist. It was difficult to find an exact number of whales washed ashore globally but according to NOAA 182 grey whales were found dead or washed ashore in the year 2019. This data was released on July 11th. Just over half way through the year there were close to 200 grey whales found washed ashore in the US, Mexico and Canada. These numbers are four times greater than what’s normal. It still seems like small numbers for this type of species that range in the thousands but keep in mind that the whales found dead ashore only represent about 10% of the deaths. The other 90% sink to the ocean floor, according to Jeffrey Boehm the CEO of the Marine Mammal Institute. So in reality, that’s a lot of dead whales. Not all of these deaths relate to just plastic, we have climate change, accidents with ships and just a general lack of food. About 56% of all whale and dolphin species have been recorded eating plastic mistaking it for food, resulting in death. Now just in the Canary Islands 462 whales and dolphins were found with plastic bags and nets in their digestive system (WWF). Roughly 100,000 mammals die from plastic each year. And as the production of plastic continues to grow, so will the death toll of our mammals.
The plastic problem doesn’t stop at micro plastics, it can get even smaller than 5 mm. That would be called a nano-plastic, ranging less than 100 nm in size. Nano-plastics are of high concern as they’re extremely tiny and hard to identify. Being so small they are highly likely to pass through biological membranes and affect the function of the cells. Meaning it is very easy for them to be ingested by aquatic animals, making a clear path for them to be introduced into the food chain and have a great threat on environmental health. A research done by John Hopkins University stated that eating seafood contaminated with micro(nano)plastics would be damaging to our immune system and upset the gut’s balance. Not only that but ingesting plastic is very toxic as most plastics are made up of chemicals such as chlorine and some have traces of lead from the environment. Continuously unknowingly consuming plastics with toxic properties over time will damage your immune system. Plastic gets into our system many other ways than eating fish, clams, oysters etc. We breathe it in through polluted air, we drink it when we drink from a plastic water bottle and even when we consume food that has been in plastic packaging. So in conclusion it’s very hard to avoid ingesting plastic.
But what we can do is reduce our use of it. Stick by the motto of Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Refuse to use plastic in the first place. When going to the grocery store don’t use the plastic bags provided to get your produce, bring your own reusable ones or don’t use one at all! Start going to stores that provide and support buying in bulk, and I’m not talking about Costco. I’m talking about stores where you can bring in mason jars and reusable bags to fill up on house/kitchen needs. Reduce your negative impact on the planet by reducing your use of plastic. Bring your own reusable take away containers when going out to eat, use your own reusable to go cups and use all reusable products instead of one use plastics. If you do have plastic products reuse them!! There are many ways to reuse plastic products and if it can’t be reused, recycle it! Other ways you can help is by partaking in beach cleanups, or just do your own beach clean up! Start taking a bag with you on walks and pick up any rubbish you find and discard of it properly. Encourage others to do the same, start a conversation about the importance of looking after our oceans and reducing our use of plastic. We started this problem and we are the only ones who can clean up the mess we’ve made. It’s not just mammals that are being impacted by plastic pollution, we are apart of it too.