Before the plastic began to choke the shore, the water was clear and pure. A translucent crystal blue, it entranced tourists to whom the Caribbean islands seemed like the backdrop to a romantic movie or old-time adventure tale. For those living on the islands year-round, the sight of the blue ocean on white-sand shores symbolized home. But over the past several decades, the timeless shoreline purity has been nibbled away by waves of discarded plastic. Today, aquatic life struggles and dies by 6-pack rings and abandoned plastic bottles as their habitat ebbs away. Landscape photos are shocking enough to prompt viewers to ask: “How could this happen?” and, perhaps more importantly, “How do we fix it?”
A solution isn’t as easy as all that. Think back to the last time you sipped from a plastic water bottle, used plastic bags to carry your groceries, or even picked up a soda on your way to lunch. All are common activities – and that’s precisely the problem. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, plastics production has increased twenty-fold since the mid-1960s and is expected to double again by 2036. Without major and widespread change, our production will likely quadruple by 2050. We are in the middle of a plastics-reliant era, and our environment is suffering from it. Researcher Murray R. Gregory published an article in the scholarly journal Ocean and Coastal Management about the potential impact of encroaching plastic refuse. In the piece, Gregory used findings from research conducted on islands in the South Pacific and concluded that the environmental damages caused by plastics include: “[D]eath and/or debilitation of wildlife through entanglement and ingestion, reductions in quality of life and reproductive performance, hazards to shipping and possibly health, and a vector for the introduction of alien taxa that may endanger island ecosystems or traditional seafood resources.” This information is worrisome to say the least – however, the most frightening detail of Gregory’s work is that it was published nearly two decades ago. Today, we face a world where the pollution Gregory references has spread to impact more populated areas with greater severity. Environmental consequences aren’t projected hypotheticals, but undeniably concrete issues; we can’t afford to be complacent about our plastic usage any longer.
But what does “complacency” really mean in an environmental context? Let’s consider the case of a Lacey, an average (hypothetical) American. Lacey tries to be environmentally conscious when she can, so she makes a point to recycle all of her plastics properly and tries to bring cloth grocery bags to the store when she can. But what Lacey doesn’t realize is that only a fraction of what she recycles will actually be processed and used again. According to the Ellen MacArthur report referenced above, only 5% of plastics are recycled effectively, leaving a full 40% to sit in a landfill and an additional 30% to clog the world’s oceans. To quote the report’s findings on the matter: “Much of the remainder is burned, generating energy, but causing more fossil fuels to be consumed in order to make new plastic bags, cups, tubs and consumer devices demanded by the economy.” In short, even the most stringent recycler may be unintentionally adding to ocean pollution by using and discarding plastic products.
This leaves us in a bit of a tricky spot. As the situation stands now, whole ecosystems are under threat from – if not already hurt by – increasing plastics pollution. Species are dying out; shoreline towns are literally trashed. In the long term, humans may even begin to see health problems develop as we consume plastic microparticles ingested by the fish we eat; it is in our own immediate and selfish interest to do more to stop the ecological harm. In February of 2017, the UN declared a “War on Ocean Plastic” in an attempt to lessen the volume of plastic choking our oceans. Ten countries signed on, including Indonesia, Uruguay, and Costa Rica. The United States chose not to.
We need to weave conservation into our lifestyles regardless of whether we are legally obligated to do so. It isn’t enough to toss something in a recycle bin; instead, we should try to find ways to avoid using plastic in the first place. If you truly want to make an impact, invest in reusable water bottles and cloth grocery bags. Find ways to limit your one-time plastic intake, and reach out to your local environmental group to discover what you can do to help minimize pollution in your area. We only have one planet, and we need to preserve it while we still can.