Plastic debris that ends up in the ocean has various harmful effects on marine life. It’s been ingested by at least 700 marine species, from fish to mammals to seabirds. Plastic pollution can also entangle, suffocate and drown sea-dwelling creatures. It contributes to pollution as well. Plastics can accumulate and transport pollutants through ocean waters.
Scientists estimate that eight million tons of plastics end up in the ocean each year. To visualize that number, imagine five plastic bags along every foot of coastline in the world. Even worse, they expect that number to increase to 155 million tons, or 10 plastic bags per foot of shoreline, by 2025.
Plastic pollution is present in all parts of our oceans. It washes up on beaches and in the stomachs of animals. We’ve even found evidence of it in the deep sea and arctic ice. Wherever it ends up, plastic poses serious threats to marine life.
Ocean animals often mistake it for food, because it looks like something edible. Sea turtles sometimes mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Seabirds confuse plastic pellets for fish eggs.
The smell can also lead animals to eat plastic. Krill eat algae, which lets off a sulfur odor when it breaks down. Birds that eat krill often follow that scent to find their next meal. Plastic debris provides an excellent platform for algae to grow on. When that alga break down, and hungry birds flock to the scene, they end up eating bits of plastic in addition to their regular meal.
Plastic products, such as packing bands and fishing net scraps, may also entangle sea animals. Marine life trapped in plastic can starve, suffocate or drown if they’re stuck there long enough.
We need to take action if we’re going to help save marine life from the plastic pollution we create. Governments, businesses, and individuals must all work together to find solutions to this issue.
Legislation that protects waterways is one solution to explore. Laws banning microbeads can help prevent the tiny plastic particles from ending up in fish. In 1994, the Shore Protection Act created regulations for trash barges to help minimize the risk of trash contaminating the water. Additional legislation and stricter rules may lend extra help to marine animals.
Businesses are changing the way they use plastics to help stop pollution. Companies are using plastic recovered from the ocean to make everything from shoes and shirts to beach huts. Others are switching out plastic for safe-to-eat, plant-based materials.
How to Help
It’s important for individuals to get involved in saving marine life from plastic pollution too. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get involved.
Buying and using less is one effective way to help. Little things like bringing your own bags to the grocery store or bringing a reusable mug to the coffee shop can go a long way. Avoiding purchasing plastic by doing things like buying less bottled water and eating less take-out can reduce your impact too.
Opting for ocean-friendly products not only helps in the short term, but it also shows companies that consumers want more eco-friendly options. Buy recycled items, biodegradable items and items that use less packaging. Buying from companies that prove they care about the oceans helps to drive long-term change.
Good old-fashioned volunteering has a very positive effect as well. You could organize a trash clean up along the beach or join up with a local organization that runs trash cleanup events. You can help even if you don’t live near the ocean. Picking up trash anywhere can help prevent it from ending up in the water. Even picking up trash when you happen to see it in your daily life can help. Imagine if everyone did that every day. The effect would be huge!
You can also help by making your voice heard. Write a letter, make a phone call or post on social media letting a government official or business know that you value a plastic-free ocean and support measures that protect marine life. Talking about the issue with friends, family or anyone, really, can help too. You may even end up telling someone something they didn’t know before and inspired them to take action.
The harm that plastic pollution causes to marine life is quite sad, but it can be easy to forget about because it’s not something most of us see every day. For this reason, it’s very important to keep informed about the state of our oceans and to do what we can to reduce our impact and spread the word about the issue. Marine life is counting on it!