As we adjust to the new certainty of living with COVID-19, we recognize the importance of kindness and camaraderie in our community during these difficult times. Marine debris has been a growing issue since plastics were introduced in the mid-20th century, but in recent months, the amount of plastic waste in our environment is surging.
The “throwaway” society after WWII led to an increase in disposable products, including silverware, cups, and napkins. You name it — it became disposable. In some ways, this lifestyle helped society recover from the war emotionally. The ability to dispose of items when people had suffered so long from the war and the Great Depression helped encourage a lavish-feeling lifestyle without the cost.
The production of plastics is incredibly inexpensive and fluctuates with the price of oil. In recent years, as oil prices climb, the price to produce new plastic goods also increases. This helps support recycling facilities by making it a cost-efficient process. Companies can afford to purchase recycled plastics to manufacture their goods.
Now enter a new global pandemic: COVID-19. This virus has wreaked havoc on the economy, dropping oil prices to levels not seen since the 2008 recession. Unfortunately, as oil prices plummet, the cost to produce new plastics becomes inexpensive, deeming recycling cost-inefficient. Coupled with a dire increase in the medical plastics field, single-use plastics are once again booming.
The medical plastic market is expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 17% due to a requisite for gloves, masks, ventilators, etc. Worldwide, organizations like TIRN are finding discarded gloves and masks throughout the environment. Rumors that reusable bags increase the risk of spreading coronavirus caused grocery stores around the nation to only allow single-use plastic bags at checkout, and the demand for restaurant take-out services — laden with plastic utensils, containers and bags — also increased. Many individuals are afraid of carrying this disease home, but they seem to have forgotten how to dispose of their waste properly.
“Worldwide, organizations like TIRN are finding discarded gloves and masks throughout the environment.”
In the past, we have seen that sea turtles and other marine organisms will ingest plastic items found in the ocean. As they break down, gloves end up resembling jellyfish—a favorite food for endangered leatherbacks. Plastics do not biodegrade, but photodegrade. As they float and travel the world with currents, they are exposed to sunlight which weakens the chemical bonds leading to fragmentation. As these items break down into smaller and smaller pieces, they impact other levels of the food web and never truly disappear.
Plastics smaller than 5 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser) are considered microplastics, and they can be readily consumed by birds, fish, and filter feeders like oysters and corals. The long-term impacts of the chemicals in plastics are currently being researched by institutions around the world, but unfortunately it is still unknown what the end result will be. We do know that these chemicals are not good for us, or any of the organisms that have been studied. Eighty percent of the marine debris in the ocean comes from a land-based source: our watershed.
Everywhere you go on land, you are in a watershed, and most places have a water source that will lead to the ocean. Marine debris might seem like an issue that only affects those of us that live near the beach, but that is far from the truth. Every person has a direct impact on the marine environment, simply by how they dispose of plastic trash. The best way to be an ocean advocate, no matter where you are in the world, is to refuse single-use plastics and pay close attention to your disposable items. Plastic items will outlive us and our descendants if buried in a landfill. Our world cannot sustain our current wasteful living.