Updated: Jun 2, 2019
Since I was little, I've been hypnotized by the ocean. The sound of waves crashing, the scent of salty ocean air, the elegant creatures...it's always been magical to me. I've been aware of the horrible damage done to our oceans and its creatures by plastic waste, but was always too afraid to watch documentaries on the subject because I knew how depressing it would make me. Last night I broke my streak and watched A Plastic Ocean, and got exactly as depressed as I expected.
The documentary was initially intended to be about blue whales, animals director Craig Leeson has been mesmerized by his whole life. When he and his team set out to capture footage of the giants, they were baffled by the amount of plastic trash in their habitat—so baffled that they changed the entire scope of the documentary to focus on the damaging effects of plastic on our planet.
Plastic water bottles, bags, straws, lighters, and other single-use items were everywhere, completely entrenched in the ecosystem. Even more depressing, though, was the prevalence of microplastic. Plastic refuse is subject to salt, sunlight, and turbulent ocean currents, all of which contribute to breaking the material into subsequently smaller pieces. These particles, known as microplastics, are tiny, often microscopic, and easily mistaken for plankton by shrimp and small fish. The creatures eat bits of microplastic, which finds its way into their tissues and muscles. When a larger predator eats those fish, the microplastic goes along for the ride. Before long, every creature up the food chain has plastic in their digestive system and tissues. To make matters worse, microplastics are a sponge for toxins, meaning that sea creatures are also consuming whatever compounds the microplastics have absorbed (such as pesticides, flame retardants, phthalates, and many more).
And ya know what other creatures eat fish? Us!
When fish eat plastic and we eat fish, we eat plastic. Ironically, the plastic comes from us. So we're essentially feeding ourselves plastic. Yum.
A recent study found that 73% of fish sampled had ingested plastic (1). The documentary cited a different study that sampled blue mussels along the coasts of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and found that every single organism examined contained plastic.
The problem feels overwhelming and insurmountable. In my depressive state, I felt like there was no hope, it was too late. Our beautiful oceans and marine creatures were suffering because of our shortsighted solution and there's nothing we can do about it.
After wallowing for a while, I started to see the brighter side. The plastic-free and zero-waste movements are gaining momentum, slowly but surely. Minimalism is becoming trendy, and second-hand shops are coming back in style. Technology is advancing every day, and scientists and activists are aware of the issues. I'm not saying we can chill and let things run their course, but I feel a little bit more optimistic and a little less like crawling into a hole.
The biggest issue with microplastics in particular is that it's nearly impossible to filter them out of seawater. A guy named Marc Ward has invented a particular mesh net for filtering microplastics from beaches, preventing them from being washed back into the ocean. His technology is spreading, and I'm confident other solutions like it aren't far behind.
Back to the bad news...
Even if we collect plastic trash from the ocean and filter microplastic out of sand, the only place for it to go is in a landfill. That's our long-term solution for our trash: gigantic mountains of garbage sitting on the ground, leeching chemicals into the soil. We have to do better.
For me, I feel compelled to create less waste in the first place. I've become more aware of my plastic consumption at the grocery store, and try to purchase stone fruits rather than strawberries (which not only come in a plastic carton but also require an enormous amount of plastic in the farming process), pasta in cardboard boxes rather than plastic bags, and full heads of lettuce rather than a plastic container of it. As I run out of products in my home, I do research and opt for more sustainable options such as truly compostable (not biodegradable) trash bags and dog poop bags, solid shampoo and conditioner bars rather than bottles of product, and bulk lotion and laundry detergent I can put in a refillable container. It's not a big shift, but the small decisions are how we got here: slowly companies and consumers used more and more plastic until it was ubiquitous. If we did that, maybe we can reverse it and work our way back to a cleaner planet.
Bulk tea, jojoba oil, and lotion + organic facial clothes to replace cotton balls. See this photo and more on my Instagram: @moxiewritingco
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