Opinion: Marine plastic pollution – we aren’t off the hook yet

Published: 6/12/2022 5:02:30 PM
Modified: 6/12/2022 5:00:13 PM

Kennedy McGrath is an undergraduate student studying Marine Biology and Sustainability at the University of New Hampshire.

Every minute, two garbage trucks of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans. Marine pollution reaches every shore, including the coastlines of New England. Discarded fishing gear becomes persistent litter, and despite policy advancements in many states, single-use plastics still find their way to our waters. The impacts are not relegated to the marine. Our food safety is in question, when we consider the possible effects of plastic content near developing aquaculture. Our economy depends on tourism, which could take a heavy hit in coming years if the amount of marine plastic pollution continues to increase. With beach season upon us, now is an important time to think about how we all contribute to the problem and how we all can take steps to make a change. Solving the problem of marine plastic pollution will require three key pathways, working in concert: national and international policy, individual action and new science.

The degree and speed of change necessary to save marine ecosystems requires national and international policy solutions. Global policy should reflect the dire need to halt the addition of waste to the ocean and support efforts to remove what is already there. This is difficult because most marine areas fall under the global commons, which are not governed by one single entity. Currently, there are some initiatives in place such as the Convention of the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter, which limits the amount of land-based waste allowed to be dumped in the ocean. Other initiatives are concerned with adaptation rather than mitigation, such as the Save Our Seas Act that provides funding for marine debris cleanup in coastal states as well as educational outreach and advocacy.

As we now know, policy is one of the most important tools we can use to fight marine pollution.

Vermont is one of few states with a statewide plastic straw ban. Boston, along with 150 other Massachusetts cities and towns, has a plastic bag ban. All other New England states have one or more plastic bag bans in effect. Many places also have a ban on styrofoam packaging. If all New England states collectively banned single-use plastic products, the strain on local waterways and the ocean would be greatly reduced. It would also pave the way for non-coastal states to be more conscious of and potentially regulate their plastic production and consumption.

Individuals can support these efforts and get involved in many ways, including simply being conscious of one’s own plastic use. 4Ocean and COASTSWEEP are two of many organizations that host clean-ups with the mission of removing as much debris from coastal areas as possible. Locally, Blue Ocean Society hosts beach clean-ups and supports microplastic research in the New Hampshire seacoast area. They work in partnership with Nature Groupie, an organization that connects environmental volunteers with opportunities across New England. The New Hampshire Network runs a plastics work group that meets monthly with the goal of educating people about their plastic use, encouraging individual action, and building partnerships with local businesses and educational institutions. As we try to do our part as individuals, we must not forget that using our vote to demand policy change is one of the most influential things we can do.

Science is also quickly advancing toward a material that could break down plastic in a fraction of the time it takes in natural processes. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin used artificial intelligence to develop an enzyme that can break down plastic into reusable materials in hours. Technology like this could prove to be the most useful tool in ocean clean-up efforts and lowering the cost of recycling.

Advancements like this come at a crucial time. Seafood accounts for almost 20% of the world’s protein intake, but in 2016, 90% of seafood imports to the U.S. came from regions with significant waste leakage, according to a recent article published in Current Environmental Health Reports. Emerging evidence shows that fish we rely on for food can absorb microplastics and potentially the toxic chemicals that compose them. These chemicals can lead to health problems such as an enhanced inflammatory response and disruption of the gut microbiome. These threats remain in place for fish produced in the aquaculture industry, as they may be grown in open water or be fed with smaller organisms that ingested microplastics during their lifetime. We also rely on products made from fish by-products, such as fish oil and animal feed. Beyond maintaining a major food source, ecosystem services provided by the ocean and its inhabitants are hindered by increasing amounts of plastic pollution in the ocean, which can have adverse health and economic effects on humans. The tourism industry exacerbates the plastic problem at many popular beach destinations, but it is also negatively affected by the increasing amount of pollution found on beaches. As with any sustainability challenge, all facets of this problem must be addressed simultaneously in order to see improvement in all interconnected sectors.

By the time you’ve finished reading this article, six more garbage trucks of plastic have been added to the same ocean that you and your child will be swimming in this weekend. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and disconnected in the face of a problem this grand, but in reality it is no bigger than the plastic straw in your cup or the bag you use for groceries. We all have the power to make one small change every day that will make a world of difference. Use your vote to support policies that can help us get on track faster. Teach your kids to make smart choices about the materials they use, and most importantly, instill in them that there is hope for the future as long as they stay educated and involved. Oh, and don’t forget your sunscreen this weekend.

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