A SCIENCE & LEADERSHIP SCHOOL

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Kate Laemmle

I sit with my legs swaying with the tides below me; behind me, the industrialized world of society rushes around on a paved, tar covered earth. In front of me, islands dot the horizon so that the open sea just peeks through tiny landmasses. To my right and left, the coast swoops and sways, embracing this little bay in its arms. If I stretch out my own arms it seems as though I am trying to intimidate a giant, attempting to capture the bay in my shaky grasp.

When I step to the edge of a cliff every single bird in the water—hundreds of seagulls, cormorants, ducks—every single one of them take off, screeching in protest at their intruder, me. They fly together, as if some invisible hand guides them, keeping them in shape. Their wings thunder together; they are one large being of sound. An explosion of visual and auditory senses, the sky sways with hundreds of black specks and the rumble and pounding of wings. Like distant thunder, the sound begins as a quiet roll then reverberates into an overwhelming clap of ovation.

All of a sudden, like an invisible gunshot through the group, the flock dissipates and spreads out like sand blown into the wind. They land, unorganized and strewn across the dotted shoreline. One lone seagull remains stationary; it bobs, no longer surrounded by companions, unfazed by its trespasser. I wait for it to join its brethren, but it stays put. It isn’t until a car whizzes by behind me that is finally stretches its wings and lazily heads out.

After the birds leave, the water is open for the wind. I see the wind. I see it plain and clear. On the water, the wind wraps its finger around the cove and runs. It steps each foot down, so waves form from its footsteps. Suddenly, it changes direction so that it is rustling the water, sending the surface this way and that. I almost can hear it laughing, running round the cove with its arms outstretched. I imagine the wind as a child with her hair whipping in the power of herself, using this cove as her playground. She dances across the surface, stomping and jumping, making this tiny cove her home. I see the water bend and change; I see it jump and suddenly turn to glass. Today, the wind has been unleashed.

As Rachel Carson says, the edge of the sea is a “strange and beautiful place” (Carson and Hubbell). Because I have the ability to see the sea everyday, I get to see how the tides and seasons warp the coast, shaping the edge of the land slowly, cautiously changing the earth. Even though the tides have existed as long as the earth has existed, there is an incredible difference and uniqueness between each day. Humans have always been drawn to the edge of the sea, and I experience this in the utter wonder of the world unfurling before me.

Sitting on the edge of the cliff, it is easy to forget the road behind me, the rushing of the cars and people running around the world, slowly wreaking devastation on the planet. On the surface corporations are ignorant to their destruction, entering forests without any respect and care to the world they destroy.  However, the ocean has yet to be tamed, nobody owns it. Unlike the land we live on, the ocean is international territory and is one of the few places on the planet that hasn’t been bought, sold, or contained. With no control, though, there is an extreme lack of responsibility. The ocean has turned into a great Garbage Dump, and we push our consumerism of the planet into the unclaimed ocean, into an unclaimed “away.” However, as Naomi Klein reminds us, on this planet that there is no away, and no matter how much we try to hide from that fact, what we produce on our planet will stay here forever (Klein). Our consumerist society constantly buys, produces, and throws away material. Our rapid throwaway culture is very recent and it is not too late to reconsider how our consumption of plastic negatively impacts the world around us.

Since 1970 we stopped packaging our products in reusable or recyclable material (“5 Gyres”). Now, we package in a petroleum plastic, causing the production of plastic to increase and resulting in a dramatic increase of plastic in the ocean, raising from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to approximately 280 million tonnes in 2011 (Wright et al. 483). Our plastic packaging and products can now be found throughout the ocean, entering through runoff from land, carried by the wind, or directly dumped in from shipment spills or loss of fishing equipment. Floating plastic is concentrated in gyres, naturally occurring vortexes of wind and currents that create a whirlpool effect, collecting in the slow moving center (“What are Gyres”). The density of plastic affects whether it floats or sinks, and therefore how animals interact with them. Consumer plastics #2, #4, and 5# float, while others plastics like #3 sink due to their higher density. Plastics can cycle through water column if they are denser than water, or if marine organisms ingest them or colonize them (Law).

Marine mammals are either drawn to plastic, mistaking it for food, or are accidentally entangled in plastic such as netting and rope. Animals caught in plastic can suffer skin lesions and even be suffocated and strangled by plastic. Sea pups and turtles can easily get fishing nets stuck around their necks when they are young, and as they grow “this plastic collar tightens and strangles the animal or severs its arteries” (Derraik 2002). Ingestion of plastic can cause animals to think they are full, block their digestive tract, and overall reduce their quality of life (Gregory).

Plastic also completely alters surface ecosystems, offering a new floating platform for colonies to grow on, providing an “attractive and alternative substrate” for numerous colonizing species (Gregory). The buoyant and durable plastic also offers a means of transportation for plastic to travel across the globe. With the increase of plastic production, the dispersal of plastics is accelerated “and prospects for invasions by alien and possibly aggressive invasive species could be enhanced” (Gregory).

Over time, plastic begins to fragment into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. As defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastics are plastic particles that are less than 5 mm in size and are caused by the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic due to UV rays and wave energy (Wright et al. 483). The chemical nature of plastic stays the same, never truly degrading, only breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces.

There are many different sources of microplastics. One is microbeads, small plastic pollutants that are many products including toothpaste and face wash. A single product can contain up to 360,000 microbeads, and these minute beads are so small that sewage treatment plants can’t capture the plastic that is being washed down the drain (“Beat the Microbead”). Another source of microplastic are fleeces, which, in a single wash, can cause just one garment to lose over 1,900 fiber-like microplastics (Home Washing Machines).

Plastics not only leach out harmful chemicals, but they also act as a sponge to chemicals in the water. Up to one-third of plastics can leach when they are put under pressure or heated, including polycarbonate, polystyrene, and PVC (“Third of Tested Plastic Products”; “Chemicals in Plastic”). Geometrically structured, plastic also allows amble surface area for hydrophobic chemicals to attach to. Harmful chemicals, such as DDT and PCB, attach to plastics, resulting in highly concentrated, toxic material (Rochman et al.). Animals who ingest plastic already have a higher chance of mortality, but ingesting plastic with high toxicity is even worse. One research group looked at the different impacts of plastic ingestion of plastic that hasn’t absorbed toxins compared to plastic that had absorbed toxins finding that the ingestion of toxic plastics caused “glycogen depletion, fatty vacuolation, single cell necrosis, and liver failure” (Rochman et al.).

The ingestion of toxic plastic is not only detrimental to marine species and sea birds, but also to us. When plastic has broken down enough to become ingested, it can enter the bloodstream and animal tissue (Law). Due to the microplastics similar attributions to prey, plastic can move up the food chain from plankton to the fish we eat (Wright et al. 485).  Absorbing chemicals consumed by their prey, fatty fish like tuna and swordfish tend to have the highest level of mercury, PCBs, and other dioxins, which is concerning considering canned tuna was the second most popular fish consumed in the U.S. in 2012 (Barclay). In fact, already our blood stream contains plastic toxins: 93% of Americans over six years old have tested positive for the plastic chemical, BPA, a contaminate from food containers (Hasslberger).

While there is a growing interest in plastic, what research we have is handicapped by the lack of technology to fully understand the problem. The ocean is a very large place, and while there has been well documented research in areas of the Pacific Ocean, almost no information has been collected in the South Pacific, and plastic research in the Atlantic Ocean was practically ignored until Dr. Law and the Sea Education Association (SEA), semester school started to collected data in 1988. SEA has been collecting data for over 22 years in the North Atlantic during their educational programs, yet in a scientific article they note that their “studies illustrate how poorly constrained are the sources and sinks of plastic debris in the ocean” (Law et al. 1185). Unfortunately, the mesh of the net they use to capture plastic is too large to capture many microplastics, leading to a gross underestimation of the reality of the problem.

After researching plastic, I wanted to know how much plastic is affecting my community, so with a group of fellow students, we collected data on where the highest concentration of microplastic is in our local community. We assumed that the highest amount of microplastic would be found in surface samples as we thought that most plastic would float. However, we found that a large amount of microplastics were actually in deeper samples at 4.5 m depth, and we found even more in sediment samples. On average, we found 55 microplastics per 100 mL of water—only half the size of the average drinking glass—and we were shocked. In comparing our information to Dr. Law’s data, which estimated that coastal communities had up to 10,000 pieces of plastic in km2, we discovered a much statistically significantly higher presence of microplastics. After estimating the liters in a km2, our data would suggest coastal communities contained 550,000,000 of microplastics per km2. Most of the microplastics that our group found were less than 1mm in length, which would not have been found in larger research vessels. These small plastics are simply not counted in the global estimate of plastic in the ocean, which currently stands at 280 million tonnes (Wright et al. 483)

Plastic pollution is not only a local problem, but also a global emergency. I found out first hand that you only have to go to a coastal community, from beaches to rivers, and see the plastic that has washed up on the shore. Documented in every ocean, the only way to combat pollution is internationally. Historian John R. Gillis suggests that we need to think of the world as one great earth island instead of separate countries. Connected by the same ocean, plastic thrown into the ocean in one part of the world affects the entire earth (Gillis 235). The only way to tackle this problem is through global action.

To truly fix the problem we must not only look at our throwaway culture, but our consumerist society. Our fast paced lives drive us to buy bigger and better, and our over consumption manifests everywhere, from plastic parts in cars to plastic packaging The production of plastic alone uses eight percentage of the world’s oil production (Hasslberger). To combat this, we must think actively about what we buy and critically about our actions and decisions. We must also think about the three original Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. As Naomi Klein points out, out of three Rs, only the third has ever gotten traction since it allows us to continue our consumerist habits, but since the other two require a general change of culture, they have had no traction in our society (Klein).

The only way combat our consumerism is through societal change, and the first thing to address is our one-use throw away culture. Only 5% of plastic that we produce is recovered. Fifty percent ends up in landfills, and the rest is “unaccounted for,” most of it lost to the ocean (“5 Gyres”). We cannot continue to use one time plastic and throw it away. In one year alone, Americans throw away 35 billion plastic water bottles (Hasslberger). If we can change our 5% recycling to 100% we can alleviate the plastic pollution.

Additionally, we need to eliminate the use and production of microbeads. In the past biodegradable alternative such as salt crystals and ground nuts have been used; now hundreds of thousands of plastic are washed straight into the ocean (“Stop the Microbead”). We also need to install smaller filters in sewage filtration system, plastic is unnecessarily washed down the drain.

How can we make a positive difference through our consumption? Be aware of what plastic products you use. For example, don’t use plastic bags, 500 billion of which are produced annually (Hasslberger). That is billions of plastic pieces that can be stopped from going in the ocean. While plastic pollution may seem like something huge to combat, small initiatives truly can make a large difference.

Reassuringly, large, global measures have already been taken. For example, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships outlawed the dumping of plastic anywhere in the ocean (“Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans”). However, there is still a need for progressive legislation and investment of biodegradable plastic. While today’s biodegradable plastic uses organic matter like corn to make plastic in a less harmful way, plastic in the end has the same chemical components and does not truly break down. We need to stop using plastic and find new biodegradable materials or go back to old materials like glass.

When learning about plastic, I thought of Rachel Carson and DDT. Once heralded as a great modern invention, DDT wreaked havoc in the environment until it was almost too late. The same is true for plastics. Plastic is meant to endure, to last. We have no idea of the actual repercussion of plastics, and yet already we are starting to find the consequences. As Rachel Carson says in Silent Spring, “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power” (Carson 17).

We must start taking action now to combat the monster known as plastic pollution. What we do as one individual or as one country in one part of the world affects the entire ocean. If we multiply one action by seven billion people, these small actions turn into seven billion detrimental—or positive—global actions. Before it is too late, now is the time to take the time to look at the ocean and commit to making a positive difference in the waters of our world.

There is beauty in everything if you take the time to listen, to watch. If you can remove yourself from the rush of normality and just sit back to see the world slowly spin, then there will never be an end to the delight it produces. Even in the barren winter there is joy. I can see it in every seagull that lifts up the ground. Two gulls cry in unison and swirl up like smoke into the sky. How can experiencing this moment every cease to cause amazement?

The tide lowers. The tide rises. The pavilion between earth and sea grows, changes. Even in this quiet wind, movement is everywhere. In the wind, in the snow, in the birds, in the elongating shadows. In the water, ever moving.

Works Cited

“5 Gyres – Understanding Plastic Pollution Through Exploration, Education, and Action.” Gyres. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2014. http://5gyres.org/.

Barclay, Eliza. “How Plastic In The Ocean Is Contaminating Your Seafood.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 25 May 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/12/12/250438904/how-plastic-in-the-ocean-is-contaminating-your-seafood.

Carson, Rachel, Lois Darling, and Louis Darling. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Print.

Carson, Rachel, and Sue Hubbell. The Edge of the Sea. S.l.: Peter Smith, n.d. Print.

“Chemicals in Plastics.” Chemicals in Plastics. Breast Cancer Fund, n.d. Web. 22 May 2014. http://www.breastcancerfund.org/clear-science/environmental-breast-cancer-links/plastics/

Derraik, José G.b. “The Pollution of the Marine Environment by Plastic Debris: A Review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 44.9 (2002): 842-52. Web. 20 May 2014. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X02002205.

Freudenrich, Ph.D. Craig. “How Plastics Work.” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks.com, 14 Dec. 7.  Web. 20 May 2014. http://science.howstuffworks.com/plastic.htm.

Gillis, John R. Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

Gregory, Murray R. “Environmental Implications of Plastic Debris in Marine Settings—entanglement, Ingestion, Smothering, Hangers-on, Hitch-hiking and Alien Invasions.” (2009): 2013-025. Web. 22 May 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873013/.

Hasslberger, Lynn. “22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It).” Transforming Green. EcoWatch, 07 Apr. 2014. Web. 22 May 2014. http://ecowatch.com/2014/04/07/22-facts-plastic-pollution-10-things-can-do-about-it/. “INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN AGAINST MICROBEADS IN COSMETICS.” Beat the Microbead. N.p., 2014. Web. 22 May 2014. http://beatthemicrobead.org/en/.

“Home Washing Machines Source of Potentially Harmful Ocean ‘microplastic’ Pollution.” ACS: Chemistry for Life. N.p., 2014. Web. 11 May 2014. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/presspacs/2011/acs-presspac-november-16-2011/home-washing-machines-source-of-potentially-harmful-ocean-microplastic-pollution.html.

Klein, Naomi. “Climate Change Is the Fight of Our Lives – Yet We Can Hardly Bear to Look at It.” Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 May 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/23/climate-change-fight-of-our-lives-naomi-klein.

Law, Kara L., Dr. “Plastics at Sea: The Science of Ocean “Garbage Patches”” State of the Ocean Speaker Series. Maine, Portland. 8 Apr. 2014. Lecture.

Law, K. L., S. Moret-Ferguson, N. A. Maximenko, G. Proskurowski, E. E. Peacock, J. Hafner, and C. M. Reddy. “Plastic Accumulation in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.” Science 329.5996 (2010): 1185-1188. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <http://www.grid.unep.ch/FP2011/step1/pdf/015_Law_2010.pdf>.

Nichtern, David. “‘Slow Enlightenment’ in a Quick Fix Culture.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 26 July 2010. Web. 22 May 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-nichtern/slow-enlightenment-in-a-q_b_658174.htm.

“Plastic Debris in the World’s Ocean.” Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans (n.d.): n. pag. Web. “Plastic Pollution: A Throwaway Culture.” Plastic Pollution A Throwaway Society. N.p., 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 22 May 2014. http://athrowawaysociety.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/plastic-pollution-a-throwaway-culture/.

Rochman, Chelsea M., Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Kurobe, and Swee J. Teh. “Ingested Plastic Transfers Hazardous Chemicals to Fish and Induces Hepatic Stress.” Scientific Reports 3 (2013): n. pag. Web. 21 May 2014. http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131121/srep03263/full/srep03263.html.

“Third of Tested Plastic Products Found to Leach Toxic Substances in Swedish Study.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 May 2011. Web. 22 May 2014. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110516181337.htm>.

“What Is the Gyre.” Gyre Clean Up Project. N.p., 2014. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. http://www.gyrecleanup.org/what-is-the-gyre/.

Wright, Stephanie L., Richard C. Thompson, and Tamara S. Galloway. “The Physical Impacts of Microplastics on Marine Organisms: A Review.” Environmental Pollution 178 (2013): 483-92. Web. http://www.resodema.org/publications/publication9.pdf.