Updated: Jul 25
By Adeline Mueller
Photo by Christopher Vega on Unsplash
Plastic pollution in our oceans poses a threat to wildlife, plant life, and humans. It exists in many forms, including macroplastics such as plastic bags, and microplastics that are so difficult to see that they can be ingested by humans. Pollution build-ups like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and stories of animals whose stomachs are filled with plastics instead of food make the situation seem bleak. Despite this, there are ways that humans can combat plastic pollution, using responsive, preventative, and legislative actions.
One approach to the problem calls on humans to reduce the amount of plastic that is currently in the oceans. This includes actions on both the individual and industrial levels. For example, “Fishing for Litter” programs incentivize cleaning up the plastic that is currently in the oceans by providing fishermen with bags to separate trash from the fish they catch. From there, they can trade the plastic litter they catch for profit. According to one business, every crew member makes $30-90 depending on how much plastic they collect. On an individual level, many people will choose to volunteer with beach cleanup projects. Removing plastic debris from beaches reduces the chances of the plastic eventually being washed into the ocean. According to author R. Heliot from the Ocean Blue Project, volunteers work to clean plastic debris of all kinds, including macro and microplastics, before the tide can come back in and wash the trash into the ocean, where it would do significant damage to wildlife and habitats.
Many efforts can also be made to prevent plastic pollution from accumulating in oceans in the first place. John Briley from Pew suggests several ways to limit the amount of plastic pollution in the oceans. For example, producers and consumers can substitute plastic products for compostable ones to limit the amount of plastic being produced altogether. Pew also suggests innovation on the part of waste management and recycling facilities. Waste management programs need to be increased and improved in low- and middle-income countries, and the amount of plastic waste being exported to such countries needs to be reduced. Innovators need to explore “plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling” programs, and “increase mechanical recycling.” As individuals, there are several simple practices that we can implement in our daily lives to reduce the amount of plastic that circulates and is at risk of polluting oceans. Iberdrola suggests several habits many are familiar with, such as avoiding plastic straws and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. There are also some practices that may not be as obvious to the everyday conscious consumer. For example, chewing gum contains plastics, and can be recycled. Consumers should also avoid buying cosmetic products that contain harmful microplastics, which not only threaten the environment but also can pose harm if consumed by humans.
Additional efforts to hold people accountable for plastic in the oceans and to prevent plastic from accumulating are primarily legislative. In the United States, there are two major single-use plastic bans circulating in House and Senate committees. The oldest of the two is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021. Introduced by Senator Merkley and Representative Lowenthal, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act aims to introduce a number of incentives and sanctions that will phase out the production and circulation of single-use plastics. Some actions include imposed fees on plastic bags in stores, refunds for consumers who return beverage containers to stores for recycling, and standardized composting and recycling labels on products. EarthDay.org makes it easy for people to voice their support for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act with a form that sends a letter to your congressperson. Another piece of legislation that has been recently introduced to Congress is the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act, introduced by Senators Booker and Merkley. This bill also aims to phase out the production of single-use plastics, using both incentives and sanctions to do so, but with an emphasis on plastic production facilities’ effects on American communities. Not only does the end result of plastic production have detrimental effects on the environment, but the processes which facilities use to produce plastic also have detrimental effects on communities because of the greenhouse gasses emitted by factories. Similarly to how you can support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, getting in touch with your Congressperson via email or phone is a promising way to show your support for this legislation.
While the plastic pollution in our oceans may seem like a dire situation, it is possible for humans to have a positive impact on not only cleaning the existing pollution but also preventing further damage to our oceans. Efforts can be made on the part of corporations, NGOs, and governments, but also by individual people. There is a clear need for a response to the plastic pollution that has already accumulated in the oceans, and also for preventative measures that will reduce the amount of plastic being produced that could further damage oceans. Additionally, legislation in the United States Congress seeks to phase out the production of single-use plastics altogether by offering incentives to consumers and producers. Despite the threat plastic pollution poses to both oceans and the broader environment, there is hope for a plastic-free future.
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