By: Ariana Palmieri
Plastic pollution in the ocean is a huge problem. You’ve probably seen videos of sea turtles with straws stuck in their noses and articles about beached whales with plastic in their bellies. So what do we do about it? And why does it matter? Here’s 10 ways to fight plastic pollution in the ocean – and why you should.
Why plastic pollution is a problem?
For starters, plastic pollution is a problem because of the ecological impact it has on our environment.
Millions of animals are killed by plastic every year, either through entanglement, suffocation, or starvation.
When an animal mistakes plastic for food, it can block their intestinal tract and cause them to die a slow painful death.
Birds and fish are the most susceptible to plastic pollution. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, have been impacted by plastics. Almost every species of seabird eats plastic.
Beyond the devastation of our ecological environment, plastic pollution absorbs and leaches toxins into our environment, and the animals that live there.
We’re clearly addicted to the stuff. We’ve made over 8.3 billion tons of plastic since it was first invented in the 1950s. Only 9% of that plastic has actually gotten recycled – and now, we’ve actually gotten worse at recycling plastic. That percentage is now between 5 to 6 percent - which clearly means recycling isn’t the answer we think it is.
Also, plastics are made using fossil fuels which contribute to climate change. So at every part of their lifespan, plastic has a devastating impact on our environment, and ultimately us.
How does plastic in the ocean affect humans?
When we eat fish, we ingest whatever they’ve eaten. Fish tend to consume plastic, mistaking it for food, which releases toxins as time goes on. Plastic absorbs toxins like a sponge, and this leeches into our seafood and ultimately us.
We eat a credit card of plastic indirectly every week. To make matters worse, plastic has been found in human faeces, placentas, lungs and bloodstreams. The health impacts of this are unknown but it cannot be good.
What causes ocean plastic pollution?
Many people believe ocean plastic pollution only happens due to litter bugs. Truth is, littering is only one part of the problem. Cruise ships dump tons of plastic waste into the ocean; Plastic items get misplaced on the beach and wash into the ocean; Plastic items like tampon applicators get flushed down the toilet, etc.
There are many causes of ocean plastic pollution, and one of the biggest things to remember about it is it all stems from overconsumption and a lack of a trustworthy recycling system.
How can we stop plastic pollution in the ocean?
So happy you asked! Here are 10 ways to fight plastic pollution in the ocean.
1 – stop using single use plastics
This is the most obvious one, but try to stop using single-use plastics where you can. A lot of times, this simply means learning to say “no” and preparing ahead of time.
Single-use plastics are often used for all of five minutes before being discarded. They often end up as litter and make their way into the sea. And, many single-use items cannot be recycled (like plastic forks, spoons and knives). Try to avoid them as much as possible.
One of the best ways to stay prepared is to create a zero waste travel kit that consists of reusable items.
Zero waste travel kit essentials:
- A reusable water bottle (like our One Bottle!)
- Reusable cutlery (bamboo or metal utensils from home work)
- Cloth napkin (great for avoiding paper napkins and towels)
- Reusable straws (stainless steel, bamboo, glass and silicone are great options to try)
- Travel mug (our One Bottle doubles as a holder for hot and cold drinks)
- Reusable bag (say no to single-use plastic bags)
2 – join or host a beach cleanup
A lot of our ocean plastic ends up on beaches where it can re-enter the ocean via waves or sea birds. Some of the plastic on the beach was dropped or littered and will only further damage our marine ecosystems.
However the plastic gets on our beach, it’s always a good idea to clean it up. This results in a cleaner beach and a cleaner ocean! Sea birds are also less likely to find the plastic and mistake it for food.
Look into your local beach cleanups – are any happening near you? If not, consider organizing your own!
This can be done through the help of like-minded people, local representatives and your local sanitation department. I suggest reaching out to local representatives to see if they will provide you with the tools needed to complete the cleanup (trash bags, gloves, trash pickers, etc.).
You will also need to provide things like hand sanitizer, wipes, first aid kit, water coolers. You can ask volunteers to bring their reusable water bottles, reusable garden gloves, sunscreen and bug spray.
Local sanitation can help create a setup station to dump and properly dispose of whatever recyclables and trash you find. They may even be willing to take it away at the end of your event for you.
It would be nice if a local business could provide drinks and food as well. Perhaps they can setup a tent nearby.
Most importantly, choose an area of the beach that absolutely needs to be cleaned and make sure to check it out before the cleanup is set to happen! Get permission, if needed, for the cleanup by talking to your local parks agency.
Last but not least, make sure to promote your cleanup. Tell friends and family, talk about it on social media, make posters and ask businesses to hang them up, tell your local newspaper and radio stations about it, etc. Spread the word!
3 – Eat less fish
The fishing industry is responsible for a huge amount of the plastic in our oceans. Fishing contributes to 20 percent of ocean plastic. An estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enters the ocean every year.
Ghost gear is any fishing gear that gets tossed overboard after it’s no longer useful or torn. There are little to no regulations on commercial fishing boats, so there are no penalties for doing something like this. That means it happens more often than not.
Beyond that, the fishing industry relies heavily on plastic netting which is designed to kill. They have nets that can rip up the ocean seabed (this is called trawling) and catch a huge amount of fish. You can imagine how devastating this is to the ecosystem, let alone what happens to these huge nets when they break.
Between plastic fishing nets, little to no regulations, and harmful fishing practices like overfishing, our oceans are in danger. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish and it’s not hard to see how if we keep going at this rate.
If you'd like to help, please reduce or eliminate fish from your diet. The fishing industry has little to no regulations, so there's really no such thing as sustainable commercial fishing. Also, this does not include the coastal communities that rely and depend on fish for food - we're specifically talking about commercial fishing.
Try eating a more plant based diet – we love the recipes from Elbows on The Table if you’re looking for inspiration.
4 – Support ocean conservation efforts
Imagine how much better our oceans would be doing if there were more areas protected from pollution and overfishing? These marine respites would be safe havens for many sea animals and offer a chance for them to replenish their populations.
That’s why we should all strive to support any kind of ocean conservation efforts we can. This could mean donating to amazing ocean non-profit organizations, like Ocean Conservation, Surfrider Foundation, Save The Waves, and Oceana.
But also, consider getting involved on a local level too. If you live by the ocean, look into any local nonprofits that exist to help improve waterways.
For example, in New York, there’s the Billion Oyster Project – their goal is to restore oyster reefs to NY Harbor through public education initiatives. And they’re doing a great job – oysters help clean and filter water, which helps bring back vital marine life (like seahorses and humpback whales – which have been spotted in New York and are a sign the water is only getting better!).
See if you have any ocean conservation projects happening near you. If not, write to your mayor or call your local representative and ask them to support ocean conservation efforts.
5 – Write to brands and businesses about their packaging
A lot of times brands and businesses (especially in the food industry) have excessive packaging that just makes no sense. I was recently in a supermarket that was selling garlic in cardboard boxes wrapped in cellophane and it left me speechless.
When you see something like this, it’s a great idea to write in to them and talk about their packaging. Make sure to keep it polite and start out by saying what you like about the brand/product/store/restaurant. Then address the packaging, why it’s a problem, and possible solutions.
For example, you could say something like “I love how you use only organic ingredients in your smoothie bowls, but I’ve noticed you only offer them in to-go plastic bowls with plastic utensils. Only ~6% of plastic actually gets recycled, so it’s important to reduce the amount of single-use plastic we use. Perhaps a more sustainable option is to offer reusable bowls for people who stay and eat in-restaurant, or compostable bowls for to-go orders.”
Starting a dialogue is so important, because you never know what it can turn into. The worst they can do is ignore you or respond in a snippy manner. If they get rude, just ignore them and don’t support their business again. Voting with your dollars makes an impact!
6 – Recycle better
Only 6% of plastic is actually recycled, and that went down from 9% - so we aren’t getting better at recycling, we’re getting worse. The average American went from making 4.4lbs of trash per day to 4.9lbs as well.
That’s why we must recycle less, but when we do recycle, do it better. And often times that means eliminating wishcycling, which is when we don’t really know if something is recyclable but toss it in the bin anyway. This can contaminate a whole recycling bin!
Here are some simple ways to make sure your recyclables actually get recycled:
- Check your local .gov to see what’s actually accepted for recycling in your local area.
- Rinse out all containers before recycling (they don’t have to be spotless, but shouldn’t contain any leftover food or drink residue).
- Understand plastic resin numbers – they don’t automatically mean the plastic is recyclable, they just tell you what kind of plastic it is. Plastics #1 and #2 are often the most recyclable kinds overall.
7 – Support plastic bans
Does your city have a plastic ban on straws or plastic bags? It’s a good idea to support these bans so that less people are likely to use wasteful alternatives.
These bans also typically encourage people to bring their reusable items instead. For example, in NY you’ll pay extra for a disposable bag, which encourages people to remember their reusables.
However, please be advised people with disabilities actually need plastic straws to function, so perhaps see if your local vicinity can make straws more optional or “available on request.”
8 – Support ocean positive companies
It’s always a great idea to support ocean positive companies that are making a difference. Like us!
Being an ocean positive company means they’re making a positive impact on our oceans. This can mean lowering a negative impact or making no impact at all. It also means taking steps to replenish, restore and heal our oceans.
Some other ocean positive brands worth mentioning:
- 12Tides (regeneratively farmed kelp chips that help restore kelp forests and are packaged in compostable pouches)
- Solgaard (Premium travel gear made from ocean-bound plastic)
- Summersalt (swimwear made from post-consumer materials and nylon waste—like old fishing nets—that are literally pulled from our oceans)
9 – Avoid micro-plastics
Micro-plastics are definitely a huge problem in our ocean, and it’s almost impossible to know exactly how many of them there are in it. But according to a 2017 UN report, there are more than 51 trillion micro-plastics in the sea – that’s more than the number of stars in the Milky Way.
There are multiple ways micro-plastics end up in our oceans. But here are the most common sources of micro-plastic pollution:
- Clothing: Synthetic clothing sheds micro-plastic fibers into our waterways with every wash. In fact every time a piece of clothing is washed, it releases 1,900 plastic micro-fibers into the water.
- Tires: Tires are actually a blend of plastics, synthetic materials and chemicals. As tires wear down, shreds of material peel off and end up littering the road, then washing into streams and rivers when it rains.
- Cigarettes: These are one of the most littered items in our oceans. The filter is the main culprit as it’s made of a particularly resilient plastic, cellulose acetate, that can take up to 10 years to decompose.
- Fishing gear: Ghost gear is made from plastic, which breaks up into tiny micro-plastics over time and ends up in the digestive tracks of marine life.
- Plastic pellets: These nurdles are tiny toxic pellets that are spliced down to make them easier to transport during the manufacturing process. Sadly, millions of these end up finding their way into freshwater sources, and eventually the ocean.
The best bet to reducing micro-plastic pollution is to be mindful of where the micro-plastics are coming from. For example, if you smoke, look into ways to reduce or stop the habit completely. If you drive, do your best to drive carefully so you don’t wear away at your tires as quickly. For washing clothes, try buying more clothing made from natural materials instead of synthetics. And in general, don’t support the plastic or fishing industry as much to prevent micro-plastic pollution from them.
10 – Talk about ocean plastic pollution
One of the best and simplest ways to help end ocean plastic pollution is to talk to your friends and family about it. Having that conversation can open up a bunch of doors you might not have known existed.
For example, maybe your friend has an idea regarding inventive ways on cleaning up ocean plastic? Or perhaps your aunt knows someone who makes jewelry from recycled plastic they could introduce you to? The possibilities are endless.
Of course, educating is always a good outcome as well. Maybe your friends and family don’t know about ocean pollution and simply talking about it will make them more aware. Awareness can lead to a lot of changes in someone’s life!
One simple way you can get a conversation going is by sharing this article online! You never know who will read it and learn something new.