What is ocean litter and why is it a problem?
Ocean litter is any manufactured or processed solid waste that enters the ocean, from newspapers to fishing gear. Marine debris, another name for ocean litter, threatens all marine life by entanglement or from ingestion. Plastic marine debris is responsible for killing 100,000 marine animals each year. Because marine debris is a man-made problem, humans are directly affecting the lives of thousands of marine animals by incorrectly disposing of plastic and other waste.
What does ocean litter consist of?
About 60%-80% of all ocean litter is
plastic, but there are some areas where it has exceeded that figure. Fishing gear,
plastic bottles and plastic bags that enter the ocean due to human
actions are the most commonly found plastic debris in the ocean.
How does ocean litter cause harm to sea turtles?
Ocean litter affects sea turtles in two main ways: entanglement and ingestion. Floating plastic bags pose the biggest threat to sea turtles because they look like sea turtle’s favorite food: jellyfish. When sea turtles consume the plastic bags, they often get lodged in their stomachs making it seem like they are not hungry, and eventually causing them to die of starvation. Sea turtles also commonly die due to plastics by getting tangled in them. If a plastic bag gets stuck to a sea turtle’s flipper, they are at great risk of that getting caught on something else, resulting in their drowning. However, sea turtles can also suffer from infection due to ocean litter. The plastics and other litter can carry pathogens that can infect the sea turtles.
Where does ocean litter come from?
Ocean debris comes from two sources: ocean based and land based. Ocean based sources include fishing boats, ocean liners, yachts, and barges, to name a few. Land sources consist of urban runoff, sewage overflows, beaches, garbage
disposal, industrial activities, ports and marinas, construction sites,
and illegal dumping and littering. These land based sources account for about 80% of all the ocean litter. The largest land based source of ocean litter urban runoff, which is litter that travels from urban areas into the oceans through storm drains, by wind, or intentional dumping. Urban runoff consists of 43% plastic bags and trace amounts of other materials such as metal, paper, Styrofoam, cloth and wood.
Where does ocean litter go?
After reaching the ocean from either a land based or an ocean based source, currents carry the debris. Because currents do not reach all regions of the ocean, marine debris often meet at places where there is no strong current to carry them away. There are a few examples of these ocean litter islands in the North Pacific, off the coast of Japan, and in the southern ocean. The North Pacific gyre, which is north of Hawaii, has grown five times in the last ten years. The ocean litter island located off the coast of Japan increased ten times in size from 1970 to 1980 and continued to increase ten times every 2-3 in the 1990s. The marine debris island located in the southern ocean has grown 100 times in the early 1990s. The increase in the presence of plastic is not without cause. The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) reported that from 1960 to 2006, there was a 293% increase in packaging waste generation in the U.S. It is estimated by the Progressive Bag Alliance that 19 billion plastic grocery bags are distributed each year. There is a parallel between the amount of plastic humans use and the amount of ocean litter that exists.
What are the threats to marine life caused by marine debris?
Chemicals from containers, pathogens from other areas of the ocean, and non native species can attach themselves to the plastic bottles and get carried hundreds of miles around the world's oceans. Chemicals and pathogens can poison and kill animals that come in contact with it. Introducing non native species to different parts of the ocean can throw the ecosystem off by interfering with a feeding level. Also, non native species, like algae, that travel with the ocean litter can overcrowd existing species. Ocean animals can also die from being entangled in the debris, from ingesting the plastics, and from suffocation. About 267 species have been affected worldwide by floating litter. Ocean litter has negatively affected 86% of all turtle species, 44% of all sea bird species, and 43% of all marine mammals.
What can be done to protect marine life from plastic debris?
- Talk to a local supermarket about lessening the use of plastic bags in the store. Request to talk to the manager about adopting non-plastic methods of transporting foods. You could also write your local supermarket a letter expressing your feelings towards their use of plastics. Make a conscious decision to support supermarkets that use less plastic.
- Reduce the amount of plastic bags that you use in your life. If you do use plastic bags, re-use them. You can also invest in canvas grocery bags.
- Learn about plastics and how they affect the environment and living organisms.
- Spread awareness to help make a greater impact on this important issue.
- Join STRP and the Bag the Plastics campaign and make a difference!
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