Plastic trash: the real marine monster

Once, on a beach, a wave washed a starfish ashore. Thrilled to see a live sea animal, I observed its movements till the next swell came to take it back home. As the wave receded, however, the little one was caught unawares when a floating piece of plastic enmeshed it.

Thankfully, I could set it free, but for a long time after I worried about the fate of the creature: could it make it home safely or did it succumb to a bigger plastic monster? My concern is justified, for plastics have reached the oceans, snuffing out marine life at an alarming rate.

Covering 70% of our planet, the oceans give us so much: oxygen, food, minerals and medicines; they hold a critical position in the biosphere. In return, we are choking them with tons and tons of plastic.

According to a National Geographic report, 80% of marine plastic waste comes from land-based activities while the remaining 20% is from boats, oil rigs and cargo ships.

A University of Georgia study claims that of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic produced so far, 6.3 billion metric tons is converted to waste. A significant chunk of this comes from consumer plastics.

So, how do plastics reach the oceans? Indiscriminate use of this stubborn trash and ineffective management of the generated waste — carelessly thrown around or left in landfills — is easily transported by wind and rain into sewers and water bodies like rivers, which eventually drain into the oceans. Microplastics used in cosmetics (microbeads) and personal care products are so tiny that they escape the wastewater filtration systems and reach the seas.

Major rivers around the world carry around two million tonnes of plastic into the seas every year. Scientists are predicting that due to the rapid inflow of plastics, by 2050 there will be more plastics in the sea than fishes.

A plastic island

Oceanic currents called ‘gyres’ swirl the plastic debris and take them thousands of miles into the sea. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one such mound of plastic litter which has formed in the middle of the ocean.

Marine biologists say that this patch — twice as big as Texas — is solidifying and sinking to the seabed, severely affecting deep-sea ecosystem and hydrothermal vents. Plastic patches are reaching even the pristine zones of the Arctic Sea.

Marine animals unwittingly ingest floating plastics mistaking them for food; birds and deep-sea animals gulp on microplastics taking them to be fish eggs, rupturing their organs. According to World Animal Protection, plastic garbage in the waters is killing nearly 1,36,000 animals every year, and 700 marine animals are in danger of extinction, disrupting the delicate balance of nature.

Today is World Oceans Day and this year’s theme is 'Preventing plastic pollution and encouraging solutions for a healthy ocean.'

This UN drive, started in 2008, associates with Ocean Project and World Ocean Network to create awareness and celebrate our connection with the sea. Many countries are making efforts in removing debris from the beaches and oceans, creating innovative barriers to prevent plastics entering waters, recycle plastics effectively and banning the use of microplastics.

Whether living on the shoreline or inland, we would be doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring the deteriorating conditions of our oceans; it is our collective responsibility to keep them healthy and thriving. It is imperative we ask ourselves: is it worth risking marine life, the health of our oceans and in turn our survival, in the name of convenience.

“Be the change you wish to see,” said Mahatma Gandhi. We can take this day as an opportunity to turn into conscious consumers before reaching for plastics and make a personal pledge to refuse or reduce the use of plastics in our day to day activities.

Following numbers are a good start to keep us anchored:

Using one reusable cloth bag will stop 330 plastic bags from entering the ocean.

One reusable coffee mug will prevent 550 disposable cups to travel to the seas annually.

One reusable water bottle will stop the demand of 116 plastic bottles.

Using glass/steel straws or eliminating them will keep 584 plastic straws out of the waters.

These are just a few examples, and many more innovative options can be worked out by carefully monitoring what we use daily.

“We are in peril! Save us!” scream our oceans today, and their cries are being submerged in the mounds of plastic garbage flowing in. It is time we plugged the leak.

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Plastic trash: the real marine monster

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