By Adeline Mueller
Image courtesy of Unsplash
Environmental damage caused by plastic pollution is boundless in our oceans. It is estimated that marine plastics contribute to the death of roughly 100,000 marine animals per year. Once plastics enter the ocean, they can be pushed through ocean currents and beneath the surface, posing a significant threat to marine wildlife.
Plastic is not biodegradable. Even though a water bottle might look smaller after spending months in the ocean, it’s breaking down into smaller microplastics. Plastics, big and small, have detrimental effects on marine wildlife. Large macroplastics like fishing gear can strangle mammals and fish. This can cause “starvation, injury and predator vulnerability.” Meanwhile, microplastics are even easier for marine life to accidentally ingest. The toxins in their bodies then travel throughout the food chain in an endless cycle, with the highest concentration of toxins being present in apex predators such as orcas, who then feed the toxins present in their breast milk to their young. Biomagnification in apex predators is a huge issue, but animals can swallow plastics regardless of their size. According to Olivia Lai from Earth.org, a turtle hatchling was found dead in 2019 because it had more than one hundred pieces of plastic in its stomach. Plastics ingested by animals such as this turtle can disrupt digestive processes, choke animals, and fill their stomachs with plastic to a point where they think they are full, causing them to stop eating altogether because they physically cannot fit any food inside.
Efforts to protect and rescue marine life from the dangers of plastic pollution need to go above and beyond to not only get plastic out of our oceans but also to prevent any further pollution, so organizations like Fauna & Flora International have supported NGOs and other programs that work towards single-use plastic bans, and bans of microplastics in products ingested by both humans and animals such as toothpaste. This is effective because legislation with these goals prevents microplastics from being created in the first place. Organizations like The Marine Mammal Center in California organize local beach cleanups so volunteers can clean trash off beaches before they come into further contact with wildlife. They also have specially trained volunteers that can untangle wildlife from fishing nets, with an emphasis on whale rescues. Altogether, there are comprehensive efforts on the part of organizations to rescue marine wildlife impacted by plastic pollution.
There are several efforts that people can take on an individual level to decrease the effects of plastic pollution on marine wildlife. According to The Marine Mammal Center, consumers should choose to reduce their use of single-use plastics such as plastic bottles and bags, and they should also reuse what plastic they currently have. Consumers can also encourage businesses to implement environmentally friendly practices, and they can also participate in letter-writing campaigns to encourage policymakers to support zero-waste policies. One policy in the United States that aims to reduce and prevent plastic pollution is the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. This legislation prioritizes wildlife by holding producers of plastic pollution accountable for plastic pollution. Ultimately, the effects of plastic on wildlife are detrimental but can be reduced drastically with both reactive and proactive efforts taken by consumers, businesses, policymakers, and NGOs.
Baker, S. (2022, November 23). How does plastic pollution affect marine life? Fauna & Flora International. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://www.fauna-flora.org/news/how-does-plastic-pollution-affect-marine-life/
Brett Nadrich, U. S. C. O. (2023, February 28). Comprehensive federal legislation addresses the plastic pollution crisis. Break Free From Plastic. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/2021/03/25/comprehensive-federal-legislation-addresses-the-plastic-pollution-crisis/
H.R.2238 - break free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 - congress.gov. Congress.gov. (2021).
Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/2238?s=1&r=82
The Marine Mammal Center. (2023). Ocean trash: The Marine Mammal Center. Ocean Trash | The Marine Mammal Center. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://www.marinemammalcenter.org/science-conservation/conservation/ocean-trash