Take three deep breaths. As you inhale, think about the fact that the oxygen from two of those three breaths actually originated from the ocean. The ocean connects humankind back to the earth with every breath we take and every drop of water we consume. But our seas are ill, facing unprecedented habitat destruction from global warming, overfishing and — the issue arguably most within our control — devastating plastic pollution.
From land-based sources such as landfills or spills, toxic plastic of all shapes and sizes makes its way on to the streets and into storm drains, which lead directly into the ocean. Foreign plastic is invading even our most isolated beaches via ocean currents. Globally, the equivalent of 1,200 oversized black bags of trash are dumped into the ocean every minute. Look around, and the evidence is everywhere: plastic sandwich bags on the ground; pieces of cheap Styrofoam coolers and plastic beverage bottles abandoned on the beach; plastic forks, water bottle caps and unidentifiable plastic shards carried away by seabirds that mistake the debris for food. Endless amounts of microplastics are being consumed by fish and wildlife, allowing the toxic material to travel up the food chain. In an ironic twist, our overuse of plastic has created a situation where it is now being fed back to us.
At the current rate of pollution, some researchers estimate there will be more plastic than fish in our seas by 2030, with around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic already choking the underwater ecosystem. What we see washed up on our beaches and floating in the currents is just a tiny snapshot of the entire picture. Most of the trash in our oceans has sunken out of sight.
Plastic production itself has earth-harming consequences such as land-based oil extraction, deep-sea mining in uncharted areas and the synthesis of harmful chemicals and additives. For decades, plastic producers have preyed on society’s obsession with convenience, but we are at fault, too. Our collective attitudes and behaviors support the continued production of single-use plastics. Consciously or not, we use the power of our dollar with every purchase to encourage brands to use more plastic, instead of supporting renewable and recycled materials. While public attention is trending towards an increase in reusable water bottles, canvas grocery bags and sustainable materials for food containers or packaging, we need a new mindset to cure society of its disposable plastic habit. It is time for policymakers, elected officials and environmental scientists to phase out all single-use plastics, but a shift of this magnitude really has to start with a demand from the consumers.
Locally, groups like Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii (SCH) host multiple large-scale cleanups throughout the state on some of the most beautiful coastlines on earth. SCH works to inspire local communities to use less plastic by getting people involved in the act of picking up debris so they can see that the plastic items they use in everyday life are washing ashore. With a core group of dedicated volunteers, SCH designs and implements various efforts including educational programs, waste diversion services, ocean plastics programs, public awareness campaigns, and assistance in various beach cleanups. The main focus is to inspire stewardship in the next generation and empower them to see hope in a future that is equipped with ocean-preserving actions.
“Our cleanups are the experiences that catalyze change,” says SCH Executive Director Kahi Pacarro, “A beach cleaner leaving our cleanups can no longer return to the concrete and pavement without thinking about how their choices are affecting the beaches they just cleaned.”
We are taught from a young age that the cure for our excessive trash problem is to recycle. But this attitude only serves to enable our disposable plastic addiction. Every piece of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still with us, even if environmental conditions have changed its form. This terrifying reality heavily outweighs the convenience of drinking a coffee in a disposable plastic cup with a plastic straw and a plastic lid.
It might sound odd, but cleaning our beaches starts at home. No one expects consumers to go cold turkey on plastic usage, but there are steps you can take to decrease your personal plastic footprint: say no to a plastic straw because it could save a sea turtle from asphyxiation; adopt a leave-no-trace mentality, and be aware of what you bring to the beach before you even get there; if the person next to you accidentally left some debris on the beach, then grab it; use your monetary power to support and encourage the growing market for non-plastic alternatives made from biodegradable sources.
It’s so rewarding to see people leave beach cleanups and educational events with a commitment to use less plastic. When you see the “plastic tide” washing up on our beloved beaches, you can choose to make changes in your daily life that support ocean health. Take a stand to adopt an ocean-friendly lifestyle, and become part of the solution.
As inhabitants of these beautiful islands, we must fight to revert these harsh visuals back to something we can be proud of to call our home. We must be the ones who catalyze the changes necessary by setting solid examples for the rest of the world to see and follow.
Sarah Rosenthal is originally from San Diego, California. She is working on her masters in GIS technology and an active SCH volunteer of four years.