Lately I’ve been thinking about plastic bags. It’s hard not to think about them as they can be seen attached to tree branches, floating in the water, or blowing across the highway. In the United States we throw away 100 billion of them a year. Of course, there is no “away.” They have to go somewhere and that place if often the ocean where they do enormous damage to marine life. Some estimates are that each bag takes about two decades to break down in the environment, though some reports are for much longer. Of course they have only been around for about a half a century so definitive breakdown rates are unknown. Regardless, they become death traps for marine animals such as sea turtles which mistakenly see them as jellyfish, a favorite food item. In fact, it’s estimated that over three-fourths of the sea’s turtles have plastic in their digestive tracts.
Some large cities have attempted to control this problem by banning certain kinds of plastic bags. This includes Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco. Outside the U.S. cities such as Delhi and Mexico City have also imposed a ban. Whether this is effective or not is still being debated. What is not in dispute is that we have a serious marine debris problem worldwide.
Plastic bags aren’t the only culprits. Over six million tons of trash is dumped into the world’s ocean every year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates, “Each year, three times as much rubbish is dumped into the world’s oceans as the weight of fish caught.” Much of this trash washes into the marine environment from storm drains, roads, boats, rivers, and outright carelessness.
In places like Chesapeake Bay “ghost pots” are a serious problem. There are thousands of neglected and abandoned crab pots in the area which continually trap many species including fish, turtles, whelks, and blue crabs. Animals that get stuck in these traps cannot escape and often perish. The numbers are astounding for such commercially important species like blue crabs in which thousands are killed a year, many being females with eggs.
Discarded monofilament fishing line is another serious contaminant. Lasting for hundreds of years, the fishing line can entangle marine mammals, turtles, and sea birds so that they are unable to feed and may even drown. Imagine attempting to navigate and feed in waters where these items stretch for long distances catching and trapping anything in its path.
It all comes down to behavior – our behavior. How much plastic do we really need to use in our daily lives? Is the destruction of these vital resources the price we must pay for a small, unnecessary convenience? Can we design and utilize alternative materials that are less harmful? We need to do more than annual beach cleanups. We need to change our ways for a more sustainable future.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.