If you’ve been following environmental news for the last ten years or so, then you’ve probably heard a lot of stories about just one word: plastics. The effect of plastic waste on the world’s waterways and oceans has become a hot topic in environmental research, and we are only recently starting to learn about the myriad ways that plastics persist in the environment and can harm wildlife and humans alike. Unfortunately, plastics have become ubiquitous in our oceans, with tiny microplastic debris even accumulating in the sediments of the Mariana Trench – the deepest place in any ocean.1
The consequences of oceanic plastic for wildlife can be dire indeed. Large floating plastic bags can be mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and eaten, causing the turtles to choke to death. A dead sperm whale found on a beach in Spain had 64 lbs of garbage in its stomach, mostly plastic. Autopsy determined that an intestinal infection caused by the indigestible plastic was the cause of the animal’s death.2
Abandoned plastic fishing nets and gear can persist in the ocean for years and years, ensnaring and killing all manner of ocean life. It’s not just the large plastic items, either – all the plastic that is improperly disposed of eventually breaks down into “microplastic” debris, including the plastic in cigarette filters and coffee cup lids; even household products like makeup and toothpaste may contain microplastic beads.3 These tiny fragments of plastic can be ingested by tiny plankton, the lowest link in the ocean food chain.4 From there, the plastic concentrates in higher and higher amounts through each creature that eats them, and effect known as “biomagnification.” Through this effect, those plastics can make their way into large fish, seabirds, and human beings.
There is cause for concern, but also cause for hope. We have the power to demand real change that can protect our planet from the effects of our plastic waste. That’s why Zoo New England is proud to join the Plastic Free July Ecochallenge. This challenge offers lots of ideas for ways to make an impact on plastic waste, from simple things you can do at home to ways that you can pressure companies, lawmakers, and other powerful interests to take plastic waste seriously and change the course of our society. The website lets you earn points for everything you do to help combat plastic waste, and you can join Zoo New England’s team to combine our points and help us demonstrate our commitment to this important conservation issue.
ZNE’s Field Conservation Department will be providing materials to help you do things like call and write to your representatives, educate yourself on the science of marine plastic, and connect with others in your community who are working to reduce the impact of human plastic waste in the ecosystem. We’d love to have you join us – just visit our website and click the purple button to sign up!
- Peng, X., Chen, M., Chen, S., Dasgupta, S., Xu, H., Ta, K., Du, M., Li, J., Guo, Z., & Bai, S. (2018). Microplastics contaminate the deepest part of the world’s ocean. Geochemical Perspectives Letters, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.7185/geochemlet.1829
- CNN, B. A. D. (2018, April 11). A sperm whale that washed up on a beach in Spain had 64 pounds of plastic and waste in its stomach. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/11/health/sperm-whale-plastic-waste-trnd/index.html
- US Department of Commerce, N. O. and A. A. (n.d.). What are microplastics? Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html
- Sjollema, S. B., Redondo-Hasselerharm, P., Leslie, H. A., Kraak, M. H. S., & Vethaak, A. D. (2016). Do plastic particles affect microalgal photosynthesis and growth? Aquatic Toxicology, 170, 259–261. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquatox.2015.12.002