Plastic Kills: The Deadly Six that’s Wiping Out Marine Wildlife
I’d say it’s timely particularly when the world’s marine wildlife and the ocean are at the forefront of the negative impact of climate change.
It’s also an opportunity, as the global organization noted in its website, to highlight “critical issues and values of marine wildlife.”
As someone who has surfed around the world, I’ve seen a lot of issues related to the safety and well-being of the creatures that we share our oceans with.
One immediate threat is the plastic pollution that’s present in our oceans. Not only is it contributing to the worsening global climate change, but it’s also killing off critical members of the food web.
Much has been written about the Dirty Dozen pollutants. The Dirty Dozen is a list of twelve items that are commonly found polluting in oceans and beaches worldwide. They are also the leading cause of deaths among the coastal wildlife. But I’d like to go further and draw attention to six of the items on this list.
I call them the Deadly Six. Made from plastic, these items are the major cause of the deaths of our marine wildlife. Whether I’m surfing in Bali or cleaning up beaches in Puerto, these Deadly Six are a persistent symptom of how plastic pollution has become a pervasive problem in all our oceans.
Here are the Deadly Six that’s killing off our marine wildlife:
1. Plastic Bags
Wherever you go, plastic bags have become such an ubiquitous presence that it’s almost impossible to visualize that once long ago, the world was plastic bag-free.
Today, the world has become dependent on plastic bags. In the US alone, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used every year. The average American family, in fact, accumulates 60 plastic bags just by going to the grocery store four times!
Worldwide, it’s even worse. Some 5 trillion plastics bags are consumed each year. According to the World Counts site, that’s equivalent to 160,000 a second. When put one after another, they can circle the world many times over and have an area twice the size of France.
The alarming thing here is that less than 1% of these get recycled. The rest are thrown out as trash and are dumped at landfills, leaching toxic by-products or end up floating in our oceans as gigantic plastic islands.
When plastic bags reach our seas, they become floating harbingers of death. To a sea mammal or a turtle, a floating plastic bag looks like a jellyfish. Once they swallow it, they either die by choking when it gets stuck in the esophagus or by starvation, when the plastic accumulates in their stomach. In some cases, the ingested plastic causes lesions in the gut or ruptures the stomach. Either way, the death is very painful.
2. Plastic Straws
Despite some criticisms that the #StopSucking campaign failed to consider the impact of phasing out straws on people with disabilities, discarded plastic straws remain to be a dangerous piece of trash.
In America, around 500 million straws are used each day; worldwide, as many as 8.3 billion pollute beaches. Each year, some 2,000 tonnes of straw find their way into the oceans, where they join other plastic debris in polluting the environment and killing the wildlife.
Plastic straws from juice boxes are particularly one of the common plastic items ingested by seabirds. These straws accumulate in their gut which give them a sense of satiety causing them to lose appetite and die by starvation. According to researchers, at least 90% of seabirds worldwide have plastic straws in their guts. By 2050, the figure is expected to increase by 99%.
3. Ghost Nets
Abandoned fishing gear, like nets, are less likely reported as causes of plastic pollution but they are responsible for the deaths of millions of marine creatures.
Almost invisible in the dim underwater light, these ghost nets comprise 10 percent of the plastic debris in the oceans, far greater than plastic straws which constitute less than 1 percent. But they are very deadly since they entangle sea animals large enough to get caught in them.
Made from plastic polymers, they remain underwater for years, slowly degrading into micro-plastic which finds its way into the food web and into the food chain.
Whales and dolphins are the common victims; when caught in the plastic lines or netting, they can’t break free and so die because they cannot rise to the surface to get air. Whales who swallow entire yards of netting die from asphyxiation.
But the victims are not limited to sea mammals. Entanglement cases have been reported for at least 344 species, including all marine turtles, two-thirds of seal species, and on-quarter of seabirds.
The damage is not limited to mobile sea creatures. Fishing gear can also cause damage to coral reef ecosystems by colliding with them, causing abrasion.
4. Synthetic Fabrics
Not many are aware of it but even our clothes can kill wildlife.
Today’s modern clothes are made of synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester which degrade easily when washed in laundry machines.
These fibres are very small that they can’t be segregated in waste water treatment plants, so they find their way into the sea when the treated water is flushed into our waterways.
The smallest of these plastic fibres can be taken up by smaller organisms like oysters and mussels. And since these shellfish are part of our diet, we end up also ingesting these fibers. The jury is still out though on whether an accumulation of these fibers has any long-term effect on our health. But given the toxicity of the chemicals used to produce these synthetic fibers, it wouldn’t surprise me if it has some hidden nasty effect.
The larger ones can be ingested by sea mammals. In one study, researchers found out that around 84 percent of the plastic debris found in the stomach of dead sea mammals are from accumulated plastic microfibres.
This underscores how pervasive plastic is. With synthetic fibers being used in 60 percent of the world’s garment production, we’re looking at an endless source of plastic pollution coming from our laundry washes.
5. Bottle Caps
Plastic bottle caps are one of the most common plastic trash recovered during beach clean-ups. No wonder it's also a leading cause in the death of marine wildlife.
According to a report by the North Sea Foundation, beachgoers leave behind 80% of the plastic bottle caps on the beach. This is a grave issue because seabirds and marine turtles see these caps as food and will accordingly ingest them. An accumulation of plastic bottle caps in their stomachs can prevent them from eating a full meal which will make them starve to death.
Marine turtles are particularly susceptible to these. That’s because they can’t regurgitate any hard substance they swallow because they have downward spines in their throats. Also, they are prone to the “bubble butt” syndrome, a condition where the decomposition of the marine debris that they swallow generates gasses. Since the gasses are trapped inside the turtle’s body, they cause the turtle to become bloated and float to the surface where they become easy prey for predators, assuming they don’t die from starvation first.
6. Plastic Bottles
Single use plastic bottles are not only wasteful but are also a significant health risk. But for the wildlife in our oceans, plastic bottles are also a death sentence.
Over 100,000 sea turtles and birds die each year from ingesting debris coming from plastic bottles. Meanwhile, anchovies will particularly eat plastic because it smells like food when it’s covered with algae.
For smaller creatures, like crustaceans, discarded bottles serve as traps; because they can’t get out, they die from starvation. Larger animals, seeing tiny prey in these bottles, will ingest them. But a tiny shard from a plastic bottle is enough to puncture the gut. When that happens, the larger predators follow the fate of their prey.
Single use plastic bottles contain Bisphenol A (BPA) which has been shown to have dangerous effects on the human endocrine system. Research has shown that it has also the same effect on fishes.
BPA leaking from plastic bottles in the ocean can wreak havoc on the reproductive habits of fishes leading to lower fishing stocks or endangering their species survival.
By developing quality products that make use of sustainable raw materials or recycle plastic, we show others that surfing need not be a toxic sport for the rest of the creatures that we share the oceans with.
— Derek Dodds, Wave Tribe Founder
What Can We Do?
The problem is so pervasive that it looks insurmountable. But it isn’t. We can still do a lot of things. Here’s a list of the really important things that we need to do now.
● Reduce our dependence on plastic bags
Start using reusable bags made out of natural materials like cotton, jute or hemp. Fabric bags are easy on the environment; they have a lower carbon footprint and are biodegradable.
Reuse plastic bags. Currently, only a measly 2% of the total plastic bags in circulation in America are being recycled. The rest are dumped in landfills or in our waterways. If we recycle these bags, we reduce the need for companies to continue producing plastic which is not good for the environment because it’s energy-intensive and has a high carbon footprint.
● Stop using straws
Unless you’re a person with a disability in swallowing food, you don’t need a straw. It’s an unnecessary convenience. Americans use and throw out an estimate of 500 million plastic straws on a daily basis; that’s equivalent to 175 billion straws per year that we can keep out from the ocean if we only stop using them.
And if you really need a straw, there are eco-friendly alternatives. Use cardboard, or paper straw. By far, the most eco-friendly is the metal straw. You can reuse it for a long time. Just simply rinse it in running water.
● Join awareness campaigns about plastic fishing nets
Add your voice to draw more attention to this worldwide problem. Widespread awareness about this issue can hopefully reduce the incidence of fishing gear being abandoned on our seas. You can also support groups working to remove ghost fishing nets in order to save our marine wildlife.
And if you’re in a position to contribute alternatives, then by all means, do so. Currently, there are eco-friendly businesses which recycle these abandoned fishing nets into other useful products. The more people creating workable solutions to this problem, the better for our oceans.
● Wash your rash guards and yoga pants carefully, and only when necessary
Rash guards and yoga pants are some of the common athleisure garments that use synthetic fibers. They’re also notorious for shedding off microfibers. So if you have to wash them, do it manually and carefully. If you can’t help but use the laundry machine, wash them on a gentle setting. It’s not going to prevent fibers from shedding off, but at least you can minimize it.
Natural garments made out of natural fiber are generally a luxury item. But with the increasing consumer awareness on sustainable clothes and the friendly policy environment to support the development of eco-garments, I’m confident that there will be more affordable eco-friendly options for clothes in the immediate future.
● Dispose bottle caps properly
When you leave the beach after a full day of sun bathing or swimming, don’t leave your used plastic behind, most especially bottle caps. Like this popular quote, you should leave nothing but your footprints on the sand.
And when you get home dispose of them properly. Ecori has this short guide on how to dispose of caps, tops and lids.
● Stop using single use bottles
Use glass or stainless steel ones instead. And this isn’t only just for drinking water bottles but also for storing containers. In fact, if you recycle the glass jars from sauces and other store-brought items, you’ll have enough bottles to use for storing anything.
And if you can’t stop using plastic bottles, have the decency to dispose of it properly. Don’t leave it lying around. A lot of stuff can be recycled from plastic bottles. Mismanaged trash actually contributes to plastic pollution. Proper segregation is key to ensuring that plastic bottles are recycled.
Wave Tribe’s Eco-Surfing Gear
Here at Wave Tribe, one of our best selling products are made from recycled plastic. Our Eco-leash, which won the best new product of the year at Outdoor magazine, is made from recycled plastic pellets.
It’s so strong that we even guarantee a one-year unbreakable warranty.
Developing eco-friendly surfing gear is Wave Tribe’s raison d'être. By developing quality products that make use of sustainable raw materials or recycle plastic, we show others that surfing need not be a toxic sport for the rest of the creatures that we share the oceans with.
For more of our products, check out our site.
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