Building on my post from last week, Part I, I’d like to present the #2 thing we can do, starting today, right now, to protect and preserve the environment and species on this planet: STOP USING PLASTIC!
While this is really no less important than shifting to a plant-based diet, it does fall under a different set of behaviors and actions we utilize on a daily basis.
As a nation, and as a world, we are addicted to plastic, in all its forms. Plastic has become ubiquitous in its form and function from bags, to bottles, to food-containers, to use in soaps and as toothbrush handles and bristles. No matter where you look, you will find plastic, plastic, and more plastic.
All this plastic is toxic. Toxic to all animals on land and sea, who become entangled in it, ensnared in it, or who suffocate from it. It is also toxic to us humans from its chemical constituents slowly leaching into our bodies or bioaccumulating from the foods we consume.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, approximately 191 barrels of hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL), a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas processing are used to create plastic products in the United States annually(1). This represents nearly 3% of the U.S.’s petroleum consumption, and that just factors in the raw material, not the processing and manufacturing of the plastic products. Altogether put, plastic manufacturing, for all sectors of the economy, uses between six and 10% of the nation’s total oil, adding to the volume of carbon we emit into the atmosphere, as well as to the detritus that ends up in our landfills, and inevitably in our oceans (2).
According to the World Economic Forum, within the next 30 years, by weight, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans (3). Worldwide, there is expected to be a 4-fold increase in plastic production by 2050, representing 20% of the world’s total oil use; unfortunately however, only about 10-15% of plastic items are reused or recycled.
To exacerbate the problem further, plastic does not readily disintegrate and can take over 1,000 years to biodegrade. Moreover, nearly 1/3 of all plastic escapes into nature, into the world’s ecosystems, remaining statically in place or clogging the oceans and slowly and brutally killing the world’s aquatic animals.
Plastic can have a plethora of negative effects on marine wildlife, and in myriad ways.
1) Endocrine disruptors:
As marine animals unintentionally swallow plastic and its derivatives, believing it to be food, Bisphenols, BPA, PCBs, and DDEs in plastic compounds can all disrupt the normal functioning of hormones in these animals, making them infertile, increasing cancer and tumor rates, polluting water, and magnifying these risks up the food chain (4).
Sea turtles, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and whales are at even higher risk for the detrimental effects of these plastic-pollutants as they are higher up in the food chain, allowing these chemicals to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in their blood stream and blubber/fat cells. This decreases the survivability of these animals by impacting their fertility and/or by directly harming them via intestinal obstruction, a block in their GI-tract that can kill them, painfully (5).
Another dangerous use of plastic that harms marine life is fishing nets: Fishing nets are typically made from nylon, a plastic-polymer. These can include: Nylon fishing nets, trawling nets, seine nets, including purse-seine nets, gill nets, and drift nets.
Nets of all shapes and sizes are killers. However, in many instances, 30-40 miles of nets are cast by ships or fishing vessels aiming for a specific species of fish. These nets can frequently be out at sea for days at a time, or in the worst case scenario, are left out at sea, lost, and drift for years, killing millions of animals in their wake.
These nets, kill, and not just the intended species. All types of marine animals get caught in the nets, are unable to escape and drown or suffocate. For years, hundreds of thousands of dolphins were killed each year by nets. Nets left at sea, or even nets whose intended targets were tuna, and only in the ocean for a few short hours.
It is noted that for every pound of fish we consume, 10-100 pounds of other marine animals are caught and killed as bycatch. Perhaps even more. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of marine animals are killed each year by accident, because of black-market and illegal fishing of endangered species (6).
In fact, as of today, there remain only around 30 vaquita porpoises left in the world; the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Sadly, three were found in the last three weeks, entangled and drowned by illegal gill nets in the Gulf of California where “hunters” were seeking out a particular endangered-fish’s swim bladder to sell in Asian black markets, also illegal.
Thus, we need to be more cognizant of the damage that our plastic use does to the environment, and find ways to use alternative materials that do not leach into the ground, oceans, or take millenia to disintegrate. We need to take a greater stand against illegal fishing, and NOT making purchases of products that support the people and countries illegally poaching these animals from the wild.
At the very least, we need to reuse, recycle, and/or properly dispose of our plastic, consider it as biohazard waste material, because it is.
For other ideas on how to reduce your plastic use, please refer to this wonderful article by One Green Planet (7).
Stay tuned for Part III!
2. Stanford Magazine. “Plastic Bags: To Recycle or not: Essential answer.” https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=30162
5. Booth and Zeller (2005). Mercury, Food Webs, and Marine Mammals: Implications of Diet and Climate Change for Human Health. Environ Health Perspect. 2005 May; 113(5): 521–526.
6. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. 3 Vaquitas Found Dead: The Most Endangered Marine Mammal in the World