If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen this video of people pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose. It went viral not too long ago and really helped to bring attention to the problem with plastics taking over our oceans.
So what’s the problem with plastics? I recently discussed this very topic with some lively and concerned girl scouts who are determined to change how people in Dallas, Texas use plastics, particularly single-use plastics.
Plastic makes up 60-80% of the debris in the marine environment. It is not biodegradable and can actually remain in the marine environment for hundreds to thousands of years!1 A recent scientific study estimated that over 5 trillion pieces of plastic weighing over 250,000 tons are floating in our oceans.2
Plastic doesn’t degrade, but it does break down into tiny particles called microplastics which are smaller than a grain of rice. As many as 51 trillion microplastic particles are thought to be in the ocean today; that’s 500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy!3 One example of microplastics that I presented to these girl scouts is local to Texas, which is a major producer of plastic pellets. These pellets called “nurdles” are pre-production building blocks for a variety of plastic goods from soft drink bottles to oil pipelines. Unfortunately, they become an environmental hazard when they become lost during transit or manufacturing.4
One of the most common dangers of plastic is entanglement. At least 135 marine species (e.g., sea snakes, turtles, seabirds, pinnipeds, cetaceans, and sirenians) have been recorded as ensnared in marine debris.7 Wildlife become entangled in everything from monofilament line and rope to packing straps, hair bands, discarded hats, and lines from crab pots. Entanglement effects include abrasions, lesions, constriction, scoliosis, or loss of limbs, as well as increased drag, which may result in decreased foraging efficiency and reduced ability to avoid predators.
These microplastics and other forms of plastic don’t just wind up in the noses of sea turtles. They also end up in the bodies of marine wildlife via direct ingestion (eating the plastic) and indirect ingestion (eating prey that is contaminated with plastics).5 Ingestion of plastic is especially a problem for filter feeders (e.g., baleen whales, basking shark) and animals who can’t regurgitate (e.g., sea turtles). Plastic ingestion can cause loss of appetite, constipation, ulcers in the stomach and in the intestine mucosa, intestinal perforation, starvation, and general debilitation in animals. Plastic also winds up in the bodies of marine animals via inspiration through the gills. Ventilation is a route of uptake of microplastics for non-filter feeding species like crabs.6
Ok, so plastic is bad for the marine environment, but what does that have to do with me? I don’t live near the ocean.
This is the very question these Girl Scouts were trying to answer because they all live in landlocked Dallas.
Here’s the fact: 95% of plastic in the ocean comes from land. Even if you live in a landlocked area like Dallas, your plastic consumption is likely contributing to the plastics problem.8 Ocean- and land-based sources of plastic pollution include runoff (via rivers, storm drains), littering (on beaches and from boats), accidental loss from boats, and wind. Microplastics can travel via wind from landlocked cities to remote locations.9 For example, debris from as far away as Minnesota and Pennsylvania can end up in the waters off the Louisiana or Alabama coasts.10
Dallas is connected to Gulf of Mexico via the Trinity River, so plastic pollution in Dallas likely flows to the Gulf via this watershed.
So now that you know that plastic is bad for the marine environment and plastic from even landlocked areas can travel to the marine environment, what can you do to make sure your plastic doesn’t end up in a sea turtle’s nose or wrapped around a whale’s neck?
The answer is simple: minimize your use of plastics, especially single-use plastics. Here is a list of common single-use plastic items and alternatives.
- Straws – We use more than 500 million plastic straws each day! Straws are too small to be easily recycled. Buy reusable stainless-steel straws for use at home (they even come with a handy straw cleaner) and refuse plastic straws when you are dining out. If you must have single-use straws for certain occasions, then opt for paper straws.
- Utensils/Cutlery – Opt for paper products when dining out or when hosting parties/picnics.
- Balloons – What goes up must come down! Yes, those helium-inflated balloons that you released into the air during your kid’s birthday party will come back down at some point and could wind up looking like food for a hungry sea turtle who thinks it’s found a yummy jellyfish! Please keep your balloons out of the air.
- Plastic Bags – Yup, these can look like yummy jellyfish to a hungry sea turtle, too! Globally, one million single-use plastic bags are used every minute and only one percent of plastic bags are recycled each year. Some states have banned plastic bags which is definitely a step in the right direction. Even if your state has yet to do so, go ahead and jump on the plastic-bag-free bandwagon. Stock up on some cute canvas bags and leave them in your car, so you never have to use another plastic bag again when you are out shopping.
- Plastic Bottles – Nearly three million bottles–that’s the number of plastic water bottles that Americans use in ONE HOUR! Yikes! We have all been guilty of this many times in our lives, but now is the time to make a conscious effort to filter your own water and load up on reusable bottles.
- K-cups – Oh how we love our single-serve coffee maker. Too bad those K-cups aren’t recyclable. But that’s okay because you can buy reusable cups and just fill them with regular ground coffee. I made this switch myself recently and found that the coffee actually tastes a lot better!
- Microbeads – These tiny plastic beads may be in your favorite exfoliate facewash and other products, but they get washed down your drain and pollute the environment. 5 Gyres worked with Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, and Unilever to voluntarily phase out plastic microbeads from products made by brands like Neutrogena, Dove, and The Body Shop. In 2015, President Obama signed The Microbead-Free Waters Act into law making these polluting plastics illegal in the United States as of 2018. You can do a microbeads demo—here’s a video that shows you how—so you can show your friends, family or co-workers what microbeads look like.
- Clothing – If you’re not wearing natural fibers like (preferably organic) cotton, hemp, or wool, you’re probably wearing plastic. All materials shed fibers. But unlike wool and cotton, plastic microfibers from synthetic materials don’t biodegrade in the environment. In addition, many microfibers are treated with flame retardants like PCBs, which are endocrine disruptors that could negatively impact your health. Cue the Fabric of Our Lives commercials!
- Styrofoam – This is expanded plastic polystyrene foam. If you haven’t broken the habit yet, now is the time!
- Feminine Care Products – Single-use plastic wrappers and applicators cannot be recycled and end up in landfills. For years, organizations like Women’s Voices for the Earth have campaigned for disclosure of the risks posed by the presence of petrochemical components in feminine hygiene products. In 2015, this organization won a huge victory when two of the largest feminine care manufacturers—Procter and Gamble and Kimberly Clark—agreed to disclose ingredients in pads and tampons. Alternatives to pads and tampons include reusable menstrual discs, cotton pads, cups, period-proof panties, and sea sponges (yes! sea sponges!).
- Cigarettes – Cigarette butts are made of non-biodegradable cellulose acetate, a type of plastic. They are the most common form of plastic litter found on beaches worldwide. They leach toxic chemicals into the water table where these chemicals can remain for as many as 10 years and can be poisonous to the fish and wildlife that ingest them. Not only are cigarettes bad for the environment, but they are bad for human health. Best alternative: just say no to smoking!
1Baulch, S. and C. Perry. 2014. Evaluating the impacts of marine debris on cetaceans. Marine Pollution Bulletin 80(1–2):210-221.
2Eriksen, M., L.C.M. Lebreton, H.S. Carson, M. Thiel, C.J. Moore, J.C. Borerro, F. Galgani, P.G. Ryan, and J. Reisser. 2014. Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: More than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS ONE 9(12):e111913.
5Nelms, S.E., T.S. Galloway, B.J. Godley, D.S. Jarvis, and P.K. Lindeque. 2018. Investigating microplastic trophic transfer in marine top predators. Environmental Pollution 238:999-1007.
6Watts, A.J.R., C. Lewis, R.M. Goodhead, S.J. Beckett, J. Moger, C.R. Tyler, and T.S. Galloway. 2014. Uptake and retention of microplastics by the shore crab Carcinus maenas. Environmental Science & Technology 48(15):8823-8830.
7Vegter, A.C., M. Barletta, C. Beck, J. Borrero, H. Burton, M.L. Campbell, M.F. Costa, M. Eriksen, C. Eriksson, A. Estrades, K.V.K. Gilardi, B.D. Hardesty, J.A. Ivar do Sul, J.L. Lavers, B. Lazar, L. Lebreton, W.J. Nichols, C.A. Ribic, P.G. Ryan, Q.A. Schuyler, S.D.A. Smith, H. Takada, K.A. Townsend, C.C.C. Wabnitz, C. Wilcox, L.C. Young, and M. Hamann. 2014. Global research priorities to mitigate plastic pollution impacts on marine wildlife. Endangered Species Research 25(3):225-247.