I’m currently living on a small island in the Philippines called Malapascua. When I say small, I mean small, it’s 1 km by 3km and ringed by white sand beaches. If you aren’t a scuba diver you may not know that this island is the only place in the world with almost guaranteed sightings of thresher sharks. So this makes it a bit of a hotspot for divers from around the world. Now you may think that because it’s an island renowned for it’s marine environment, it is free of plastic pollution. However, you’d be wrong. Some of you know that I have traveled extensively often to off the beaten track locations and I have yet to find a place that isn’t polluted with plastic. And lots of it.
I recently read that the average person uses a plastic bag for 12 minutes before discarding it. Only 12 minutes. And most bags will not get recycled (1-3% worldwide and about 9% in the US). Plastic bags take between 10-20 years to degrade. A lot of those bags will end up as litter in our cities, in our forests and of course, our marine environments. So why should this matter to you? Why should you shake up your convenient routine?
Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage patch? This is an area characterized by a high level of pelagic plastics that are held in a patch by our ocean currents. Size estimates vary between the size of Texas to twice the size of the United States. And guess what, there is another one now, the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. Sit with that thought for a minute. Let that really sink in. There are two very large ocean patches filled with our 12 minutes of convenience. These plastics are getting banged around and break down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics.
Microplastics are also very good at absorbing toxins. So as these particles are floating around they are collecting PCB’s, DDT and PAH’s. These toxic, plastic particles are then ingested by seabirds, fish and marine animals. If you are eating fish regularly then I strongly urge you find out more about the fish you are consuming. These microplastics are also estimated to kill 1 million seabirds a year and 100,000 marine animals like turtles, whales and manatees.
So what can we do? We can limit our use of plastics. This may seem overwhelming as plastic is everywhere but there are better choices out there. I’d also start small, the key here is changing behaviour and change takes getting used to. So maybe pick one plastic item you use often; plastic bags, cigarette lighters, water bottles, straws and look for an environmentally friendly alternative. Reusable bags are everywhere these days, invest in a Zippo lighter you really like or better yet, quit smoking. (Cigarette butts are consistently one of the main sources of ocean pollution). Ladies switch to tampons that don’t have plastic applicators (O.B. for example). Reusable water bottles and coffee mugs are fashionable and lightweight. Talk to people about plastics; ask your store to provide paper bags, write to your governments asking to ban plastics. You don’t have to do everything but you need to do something and you need to start today, with one thing. So what’s your one thing going to be?