The oceans have become the focus of discussion for some time now because of the large amount of pollution circulating through them. Most people don’t realize that Earth is predominantly water, in fact, 71% of Earth is covered by water. The ever rising human population and reliance on one time items have essentially turned our oceans into a large trash can.
Humans have taken this natural resource for granted. We threaten entire species for easy to use disposable items. Every year we hear about massive oil spills from oil tankers transporting refined fossil fuels.
Even though the ocean is more massive than most can comprehend we are still doing harm to it. This is true even if you don’t realize it. For example, most grocery bags and plastic water bottles end up in the ocean. It has been reported that around 1.4 billion pounds of garbage are dumped into oceans every single year.
But pollution is more than simply garbage. It includes chemicals, agriculture waste, noise, and invasive organisms. All of these things not only affect the water but also marine life.
Chemicals humans are creating are combining with seawater to alter the chemistry of our oceans. Driving your car releases emissions that not only enter the atmosphere but also the oceans. Scientists have calculated that ¼ of all carbon emissions enter the oceans. This, in turn, wreaks havoc on the pH balance of the water making it more to the acidic side than a neutral position.
This effect is rapidly increasing due to the number of vehicles on the street. The oceans are becoming more acidic faster now than at any point in the last 300 million years. This increasing acidity affects every single aspect of the oceans. Fish are not equipped to adapt to these changes and are dying.
You can see these effects in the bleaching of coral around the world. Most famously, the Great Barrier Reefs coral has been dying causing an outcry. It also affects entire ecosystems. If one species dies the species that eat them will have no food thus causing a chain reaction.
Trash in the Ocean
You have a direct effect on the amount of trash in the ocean. Most of the garbage is plastic which cannot biodegrade so it sits there for decades. The biggest item that ends up in the ocean is single use items. This includes water bottles, straws, yogurt containers, and grocery bags. Every time you throw these into the garbage rather than the recycling they will end up in the ocean.
Plastic straws have been in the news recently due to the graphic videos and photos of them in animals nose. These have been circulated on social media to the point of causing large companies to change to biodegradable options.
Even though some garbage is dumped into the ocean the majority of the garbage starts its journey into the ocean from landfills. Approximately 80% of all garbage wasn’t directly dumped in the ocean. This trash gets to the ocean through large storms, drains, and wind.
Trash doesn’t just mean water bottles and plastic bags though. Planes, trucks, lawn mowers and boats all leak oil that ends up in the ocean. Even small amounts of petrol based products have serious effects on the ocean
Most people wouldn’t know that ocean noise is a serious concern for our oceans. Ever species of fish communicate differently with most using sound to do so. The waves that generate sound also travel faster in water than air meaning they will go farther. These fish uses sound to do everything from communication to mating and even navigation. All the sounds from massive oil tankers on the surface of the water can affect a large number of fish.
These noises are giving fish, like whales and dolphins, signals that are confusing and even killing them. Since oil tankers circle the globe this isn’t a localized issue. There can be over 60, 000 tankers circling the globe at any given time. Imagine for a second living beside an airport with planes landing every few minutes. That’s what it would feel like for the marine life.
Sonar from military ships can also have the same effects. Their sound waves can travel up to 2500 feet making it difficult for whales and dolphins to communicate. These effects can alter migration patterns and cause fish to be in areas that they cannot survive.
Humans reliance on fossil fuels has caused more offshore drilling than ever before. These sites are home to many of the issues we’ve talked about. Every single drilling site releases toxic chemicals into the ocean which causes ocean acidification. They also produce a staggering amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that finds its way back into the ocean. The drilling is also one of the largest noise polluters. They have the same effects as large oil tankers.
Additionally, it seems there is a large oil spill originating from one of these sites yearly. These are devastating for not only the local environment but also on a larger scale. Oil spills are extremely hard to clean up. The effects and oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill are still felt to this day. Not to mention the clean up techniques involve using harmful chemicals as well.
Ocean Pollution and You
You may be thinking, “What can I do to help?”. There are lots of little things you can do to stop marine pollution. Instead of buying plastic bags every time you go grocery shopping bring reusable bags. Also, when you’re shopping for groceries choose ones that have less plastic wrapping. Ensure that you put your recycling in the right bin so plastic bottles don’t find their way into the ocean. You can even start using biodegradable garbage bags so that they don’t take decades to break down.
If you want to get more serious about helping you can get people to help you clean up beaches or parks in your area. This will reduce the waste that will get swept back into the ocean.
Causes of Ocean Pollution
There are so many things we do every day that pollute the ocean. Simply driving your car adds oil and carbon emissions. Obviously littering will cause a build up of plastic in the environment. Sewage, ocean mining, and drilling all add chemicals to the ocean that affects its acidity level. These are just a few of the large number of causes of ocean pollution.
Ocean Pollution Facts
It should come as no surprise that how we are currently treating our ocean is not sustainable. There are no two ways about it, we can no longer treat the ocean, and the earth, as our garbage can. You may have seen the many videos circulating social media depicting how bad it has gotten, but you likely still don’t know the full extent of it. Check your knowledge with these 20 facts. The cold hard truth may just shock us into action.
- Plastic has become the number one most common element found in our oceans. As plastic is so hard to break down, it literally destroys our environment. In the ocean, many ocean animals mistake it for food and end up ingesting it.
- Land base sources account for the most crippling sources of pollution in our oceans. The biggest source of pollution comes from oil, dirt, farms, septic tanks, motor vehicles and other major land pollutants. This is on top of the thousands of tons of garbage and waste that is dumped into our oceans daily.
- Marine pollution takes the lives of over one million seabirds every single year. An alarming 300,000 dolphins and porpoises die every single year. This is due to the fishing industry discarding fishing nets and these animals becoming entangled in it, amongst other floating debris. 100,000 sea mammals, such as whales and sea otters, die each year due to the pollution in the water.
- Lots of the waste and trash that is discarded into our waters is dumped hundreds of miles offshore. This doesn’t stop it from washing up on land. Tides and currents push the debris in all directions, even washing it up on our beaches. The chemicals released in the waters from this dumping affect every single marine animal.
- Off the coast of California sits an enormous island of garbage. Named “Garbage Island” this isn’t an island at all but instead the largest oceanic garbage site in the world. Due to currents, lots of our ocean garbage has congregated to this area, a site that is twice the size of the state of Texas. In this area, the number of pieces of plastic outnumbers the surrounding marine life to an astonishing 6 to 1.
- The most harmful substance in our ocean is oil. This accounts for the fastest source of ocean deterioration. You may think oil in the ocean is the result of oil spills so it may surprise you that only around 12% of ocean oil comes from spills. The rest is the result of land drainage. Oil works to damage entire ecosystems. Oil is suffocating to marine life. The marine life that don’t die from the suffocation suffers behavioral changes and breakdowns of thermal insulation.
- Toxic metals are just that: toxic. They work to destroy the growth, biochemistry, reproduction and behavior of our marine life.
- Plastic can absorb the toxic chemicals found in ocean pollution. Marine animals then eat this plastic, mistaking it for food, and the chemicals then poison it. This is why plastic pollution is the most serious threat to our ocean. Plastic doesn’t degrade. Instead, it simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces but never fully disappears.
- There is also a significant amount of radioactive waste being dumped into our ocean. This type of waste comes from nuclear reactors, heavy metals and acids, drained sewage amongst other polluters. In the end, billions of tons of waste are dumped into our oceans each year. This far surpasses the 250 million tons of garbage generated. This dumping has resulted in an increase in the number of endangered species. The pollution we are facing is resulting in a gradual loss of marine life.
- The oceans ecosystem is delicate and with the sewage dumping, it is changing for the worse. Sewage dumping kills organic matter found in our ocean. This causes a chain reaction that leads to a change in biodiversity.
- Agricultural companies use fertilizer to ensure their crops have the nutrition they need to grow and flourish. The issue is that the runoff from their crops includes this fertilizer. It finds its way to the ocean and causes algal blooms which significantly reduce the oxygen in the water that the fish need to breathe.
- Due to the complexity of the food chain below the sea, the levels of chemicals absorbed is high in concentration. Small animals eat the small plastic particles or otherwise absorb chemicals. These animals then get eaten by larger animals resulting in an increase in the concentration of chemicals in the larger animal. This continues to the top of the food chain where levels of contamination are millions of times higher than the water surrounding them.
- As humans sit at the top of this food chain eating the fish in the sea, we gain a high level of contamination as well. This results in serious health concerns including cancer and issues with our immune system.
- This ocean garbage affects not only our marine life but also plays a role in our above ground life. Garbage dumped into the ocean (cans, plastic bottles, wrappers, etc.) washes up on our beaches. This becomes land pollution and works to have a negative effect on the tourism industry.
- Due to the many coastal rivers that feed into the ocean, contaminated ocean water has the ability to transfer the pollutants to freshwater. This can contaminate wells and groundwater in the process.
- Mines and quarries use chemicals that can pollute the ocean. Even if these are far away from the ocean they can still end up in the water. Rivers and streams can transport these chemicals far distances.
- Earth surface is made up of 70% water. Even though this may make it seem like pollutants will be dissolved and diluted these pollutants don’t go away. They still affect the ocean and the marine life.
- It wasn’t until the ‘70s that we stopped intentionally dumping harsh chemicals into the ocean. Everything from radioactive waste to the worst pesticides was simply dumped into the ocean.
- Eutrophication is still a real problem in our world and in some areas of the world, including the Gulf of Mexico, this has resulted in dead zones in our oceans.
- Sewage waste ending up in our oceans is still a very real issue today in some areas of the world. Whether this has been treated or remains untreated, this causes serious issues for both marine and human life and can even lead to eutrophication.
Q: What Are Some Alternatives To Single Use Plastic?
A: This is one of the best questions to ask as working to eliminate the use of single use plastics is a great way to get a hold of this epidemic. It is important to think “reusable” and then to take this one step further and not turn to plastic reusable.
While consumers can do a lot to change their habits, what is really important is to get companies to change their packaging system. In order to do this, we need companies to rethink how they sell their products. Plastic free packaging is important. A great way to do this is through reuse and refill systems.
Q: Are Glass And Aluminum A Better Alternative To Single Use Plastic Bottles?
A: This answer is a bit more complex. Single use glass and aluminum are imperfect solutions. While they do offer a far more sustainable solution to plastic, they still rely on an unideal single use model that we must move away from. This is why a lot of the pressure to combat this problem is on companies rather than consumers. It is important to find better solutions and develop past our current products. In the end, glass and aluminum still end up staying in our oceans for many years.
Q: What About It Being Recycled? Is It Still Considered Single Use If We Can Recycle The Plastic?
A: The issue here really comes down to single use. Over 90% of plastic waste hasn’t been recycled. This makes it clear that single use plastics, even if it is able to be recycled, will end up being thrown away. Oftentimes it is a mere percentage of the plastic that is able to be recycled. The reality is, eventually that item will still end up polluting our environment. These recyclable plastics are really more of a marketing tactic from companies looking to band aid a solution rather than actively solve a problem.
Q: Why Target Corporations Rather Than Consumers About Fixing The Problems Of Single Use Plastic And Recycling?
A: Times are changing and more and more people are wising up to the negative effects we are having on our environment. While consumers undoubtedly hold a great duty to avoid plastic use and be conscientious with the companies and products they wish to support, change needs to be rooted within corporations. They have a duty to their customers, and their planet, to work towards ending this epidemic. Providing more sustainable options for packaging will work towards keeping a loyal customer base as well as minimizing their effects on the environment.
Q: Many Companies Are Reducing Virgin Plastic Content Or Fossil-Plastic Content In Bottles. Is That Enough?
A: While something is better than nothing, the reality is we can do a lot more than this. This problem has become too great to simply ignore and therefore real permanent change is needed. Over 90% of plastic produced is not recycled. Adding a higher amount of recyclable content to our plastic items simply isn’t enough. Companies producing billions of plastic containers every year will still result in billions, or many millions, of polluting bottles in our waterways even when making these small changes.
Q: Where Do Bioplastics Fit Into This? Aren’t There Companies Already Using Them Like Coke?
A: Bioplastics are the latest attempted solution to the world’s plastic issues. They have been made from material that is said to be biodegradable meaning they will break apart and dissolve into the ocean. Products made with this material will leave almost no trace including harmful chemicals or residue.
But they are not the best solution. Even biodegradable material will take time to deteriorate. We also have to be careful with the way that these are marketed. If people know that their bottle is biodegradable they could be more likely to not recycle. This is an issue because these bottles would still take time to degrade.
Q: Is It Realistic To Think We Can Actually Phase Out All Single Use Plastic?
A: The reality is, single use plastic hasn’t always been around. We have lived without their use before and with all of our technology, we can certainly do it again. Our world has turned into a streamline of convenience which is why we may mistakenly think this change is unrealistic. It will definitely be a task that requires time and dedication but we can undoubtedly move towards a world without single use plastic. It is important for companies to commit to the goal and develop new materials and delivery systems that will make this transition easier for consumers.
Q: Can’t We Just Remove The Plastic Bottles That Are In The Ocean?
A: A great idea but unfortunately, it isn’t his easy. It has been estimated that 94% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean sinks to the seafloor. All that plastic that you have seen videos of washing up on beaches only make up about 5% of what is in our oceans. Less than 1% floats at the surface. To make it harder, over time this plastic breaks into smaller fragments polluting the water with tiny pieces of microplastic. This becomes ingested by fish and makes the problem out of control. The best, and only, way to see a permanent solution is to stop the use of single use plastic.
Q: Does Plastic Ever Biodegrade?
A: There are a few different kinds of plastic but petroleum plastic will never biodegrade. Some may break apart into smaller pieces which can make it even harder to clean up. Most plastics take over 1000 years to decompose in landfills. This can be even longer in the ocean.
Q: Could We Incinerate Plastic To Solve This Problem?
A: Incinerating plastic is not a viable solution to the pollution issue. Burning plastic simply transforms the pollutants into the atmosphere instead of the ocean. This pollution can be more dangerous as it will affect not only our air quality but also end up in the ocean, just in a different form.
Q: Could Chemical Recycling Be A Solution?
A: Chemical recycling is the process why which chemicals break down materials into their original chemicals. This makes it easier to reuse the materials to make similar products. The issue with this process is that there has been tons of money injected into research and there is still not an inexpensive process.
Even though this may seem like a good solution to pollution, the process of breaking down the items itself causes pollution. A better solution to this would be to simply manufacture less plastic, and one time use items. There are many biodegradable solutions companies can use instead of trying to find different ways of recycling the plastic.
Q: Which Countries Are The Biggest Polluters?
A: Based on estimates from the journal Science, in 2010 the top 5 countries were: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. But what’s unnerving is that the United States is ranked number 20 in the world. This means that we need to rethink how we deal with our garbage and pollutants.
Q: What Is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
A: The currents of the oceans create a place in the middle of the Pacific ocean where garbage gathers. Once it gets to this location the currents essentially encircle it creating boundaries that it cannot cross. It wasn’t even discovered until the late 1980’s. This garbage patch covers an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers and includes 1.8 trillion pieces of trash. The scary part is that it keeps growing every year. Most people don’t know even know this exists.
Marine pollution is no longer a small problem we can simply ignore. Instead, this is an epidemic that needs our attention. As consumers, you have more power than you may think. While making it a personal goal to participate in movements such as plastic free July, switching to reusable straws and bringing your own coffee cup and grocery bags, your voice could be used to a much grander scale.
Participating in beach clean ups can make a great difference. Be sure when doing this to do an inventory on the companies you are finding more pollutants from and urge them. Social media can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and starting more sustainable movements. Do your research to ensure that the companies you are using have taken the steps towards sustainability. With enough pressure on companies, they will be forced to take real steps towards a more sustainable future.
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What steps are you taking to combat the pollution crisis we are facing in our oceans? Talk to us about it in the comment section below.