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Katherine Rigney

Plastic Pollution and How Individuals Can Change the World

Activism is defined as the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving goals. Activism takes many forms: to some it means civil disobedience, protesting, or signing petitions, but activism in all of its forms is meant to create change. We, as a global community, are faced today by some of the most momentous tasks in history—changing our society such that our world no longer bears our burden so heavily. This is a responsibility that each and every individual must take on their own daily lives if we are to succeed. Plastic pollution in our oceans is a particularly striking example of this global need for individual action, because it poses such a monumental challenge to our globe.

The modern age of plastic began in earnest the decade following World War II, when plastic became increasingly more important in commercial circles. Plastic represented a major breakthrough in industry. Plastic was cheap, versatile, and durable, and new uses just kept being discovered. Plastic was lightweight, allowing it to be transported more easily and cheaply than heavier materials like glass or metal. Plastic was easy to produce, and as a result, the use of plastic has been steadily rising since World War II. Large-scale production of plastic materials has resulted in a steep drop in consumer prices (“History of Plastics”). Today, we live in a primarily plastic world. Look around you—I’ll bet you can name upwards of a dozen items that derive from plastic.

More plastic usage means more plastic trash— especially for the ocean: 80% of plastic litter in the ocean originates on land (“The Problem”). When most people think of plastic pollution, they think of the familiar picture of a sea turtle tangled in netting, and it’s true that entanglement is a real problem—one study conducted in the Bering Sea estimated that about 40,000 Northern fur seals were killed per year by plastic entanglement. Huge numbers of species suffer from entanglement, including “32 species of marine mammals, 51 species of seabirds and 6 species of sea turtles” (Laist 1997).

Macroplastics in our oceans are a huge issue. On the other side of the coin, however, are microplastics. Plastics, because of their molecular structure, do not degrade. Once introduced to marine ecosystems, they break down into ever-smaller pieces through the constant destructive power of salt water and sunlight. These tiny pieces of broken-down plastic, called microplastics, are defined as any piece of plastic less than 5 mm in length (Moore).

Microplastics pose just as large an issue for our oceans as macroplastics do. Their introduction to marine environments has caused a slew of problems. They act as a sponge for extremely harmful chemicals in the ocean—things like PCBs, PAH, and DDT. These chemicals and others have been known to cause “endocrine disruption and cancer-causing mutations” in humans (“Ocean Plastics Pollution”). As microplastics travel through ocean water, they attract these toxic molecules like a magnet, so that concentrations of harmful chemicals found on the surface of microplastics can be up to one million times higher than that of the surrounding water (“Ocean Plastics Pollution”). When fish eat these particles of plastic, mistaking them for food, this concentrated source of harmful chemicals is passed up the food chain. In a 2008 Pacific Gyre Voyage, 35% of the 672 fish caught had ingested plastic pieces (“The Problem”).

Plastic is wreaking havoc in marine ecosystems, havoc that we’re just now beginning to understand: entanglement and absorption of toxic chemicals only scratch the surface of the harmful effects that plastic has on marine environments. Plastic provides a vehicle for microorganisms to latch onto as they drift from ocean to ocean with the currents, bringing invasive species to new places with alarming speed; plastics constitute an entirely new substrate that we’ve introduced into marine environments in just the past 50 to 70 years. When eaten by organisms, plastic takes up space in their digestive tracks, causing them to feel full even though they clearly aren’t deriving nutritional benefit from the plastics. Because of this, plastic consumption can cause marine creatures to starve to death.

All of these effects require us to know more about the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans. However, that’s very difficult to quantify—the number of particles that any given study finds is highly dependent on what size net they use to capture plastic, where they are in the world, what depth they test at, if they are near the shore or not, and a number of other factors. One study in the Northern Pacific Ocean found that although plankton were five times more abundant than plastic particles, “the mass of plastic was approximately six times that of plankton” (Moore et. al). In other words, the study counted more plankton than plastic; however, the plastic pieces were bigger than the plankton, and took up six times more space than plankton, the base of the food chain, did.

How did we get ourselves to a place where plastic is six times more massive than plankton in our oceans? Naomi Klein, a prolific environmental activist known for her sharp criticism of corporate globalism, has some ideas. Klein believes that humans are suffering from a terrible case of bad timing—that just when we needed the most flexibility to confront the growing environmental issues facing us, we were saddled with stringent local and national restrictions that prevent us from working together effectively as a species. Just as we needed to consume less, consumerism became the most influential force in the world. She brings up an interesting point—of the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), only ‘recycle’ has ever been influential, because “it allows us to keep on shopping as long as we put the refuse in the right box” (Klein).

This out of control consumerism has created a toxic throwaway culture. Our entire society hinges upon the idea that there is “always an ‘away’ into which we can throw our waste” (Klein). ‘Away’ can take the form of landfills, the air, and especially the ocean. Plastic that blows offshore seems to go ‘away’—but the truth is that our world has no away! All of the things that disappear go somewhere. We know that, but live in a state of “constant forgetfulness”; as Klein says, we learn to live with it. We do not forgive it, necessarily, but we allow the mindless waste to continue. We all know, for instance, that sea turtles die from plastic pollution. However, as a society, we don’t refuse to use plastic materials; we don’t write letters to our policy makers; we don’t get outraged. That isn’t for lack of things to be outraged about; it’s for lack of outrage itself.

This societal aversion to outrage is one major obstacle to activism. Rage is a very influential emotion; it inspires activism. The problems with outrage is that, although there are things to be angry about wherever we look, it’s really hard to go about life perpetually outraged. So instead, we learn to shut it out, live our lives through a haze of acceptance, allow it to continue.

This feeble acceptance of big issues means that plastic pollution can often seem far removed from the lives of individual people. I myself am guilty of this—I don’t live on the coast; someone else does. Throwing away one plastic bottle that could have been recycled won’t affect me in the immediate future. Buying 300 plastic spoons for a party with the deliberate intention of using each of them only once isn’t going to negatively affect my immediate living conditions. Using plastic bags instead of paper ones doesn’t make me a bad person. To many, including me in many cases, it sometimes seems that one person could never make a very big difference in the face of a problem so unimaginably vast.

Herein lies our second mistake: assuming that one individual cannot make a difference. Plastic pollution in our oceans is such a vast issue that it seems to us impossible to face head-on. The title of Naomi Klein’s article sums it up: “Climate change is the fight of our lives— yet we can hardly bear to look at it”—and the same is true of marine plastic pollution. In the face of a 6:1 ratio of plastic mass to plankton mass, it may seem like there’s nothing we can do. That makes it easier to shunt our dirty oceans into a box in the back of our minds, to open when desired, always giving ourselves the opportunity to close it up at will and resume normal life without any of the accompanying outrage. In fact, Klein supports this view of individual powerlessness: she tells her readers that we need to band together as a species to combat immense environmental issues—that unless the entire planet works together, we can’t accomplish anything at all. It is true, I grant her, that we need to work together globally. However, it is equally as unlikely.

We, as a world, have a limited amount of time in which to combat plastic pollution before it wreaks irreversible damage on our world. The fact is, governments are clunky and difficult to maneuver. It will be extraordinarily difficult to create meaningful change in the time we have left if we rely on our policy makers and governments to cooperate and create that change for us. Individuals must feel empowered to make a difference.

We’ve all heard the spiel before: “EVERY person can make a difference! Over the course of one human lifetime, we use up X plastic bottles! Just use fewer bottles! That’ll surely solve the problem!” The reason this doesn’t stick with us is because it clearly isn’t true. Everybody, at this point, knows that one individual using fewer bottles will not solve the problem of plastic pollution. Faced by such a huge problem, without being given any correspondingly huge solutions that we can implement in our daily lives, it seems to each of us that nothing we do can make a difference, positive or negative. However—and this is the most important part— it was this very mindset that got us in this mess in the first place. The idea permeating society— that individuals have no power on their own—is inherently flawed, because individuals create the whole of humanity. When individuals assume they have no ability to make a change, that idea ripples outward, causing all of humanity to believe it’s someone else’s problem, because every person believes themselves to be exempt from the need to create any change at all!

It is only when we all take that responsibility onto our own shoulders that any substantial societal shift can happen. If everyone assumed responsibility of their own actions all at once and began believing that their individual impact truly does affect the globe, then the world can change. But this will only happen if we all believe that individual actions can make a substantial difference, because those ideas will also ripple outward, causing more change than we could dream. All of humanity must act as though we all, individually, are the only ones capable of freeing our oceans from all traces of plastic. Then, these individual impacts will build up into a global movement (without any need for governments to intervene at all).

This is hard, I know. We all know the basics: recycle everything that can be recycled, don’t litter, and avoid one-time use plastic products.  The fact is, sometimes it’s really hard to hold oneself accountable for all of the little things one does over the course of the day. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to hold onto your plastic bottle until you find a recycling bin. Sometimes it’s hard not to just buy plastic spoons instead of washing metal cutlery. But the truth is that these action steps, seemingly small and powerless as they are, can add up. When one person starts doing everything right, the message can spread through families, to friends, to entire communities. In many cases, plastic pollution is a question of being more aware, paying more attention. If we all join together to take individual action where we can, we can create a global movement.

Our oceans depend on it.


Works Cited

“History of Plastics.” SPI. 20 May 2014 http://www.plasticsindustry.org/AboutPlastics/content.cfm?ItemNumber=670.

Klein, Naomi. “Climate change is the fight of our lives – yet we can hardly bear to look at it.” Theguardian. 23 Apr. 2014. Guardian News and Media. 22 May 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/23/climate-change-fight-of-our-lives-naomi-klein.

Laist D.W (1997). “Impacts of marine debris:entanglement of marine life in marine debris

including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records.” In: Marine Debris. Sources, Impacts, Solutions. J.M. Coe and D.B. Rogers (eds.). Springer-Verlag New York, Inc., pp99-140.

Moore, C. J., M. K. Leecaster, S. L. Moore, and S. B. Weisberg. “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 42 (1991): 1297-300. Science Direct. 22 May 2014.

Moore, C J: “Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat”, Environmental Research, 108(2), pp. 131–139, 2008

“Ocean Plastics Pollution: A GLOBAL TRAGEDY FOR OUR OCEANS AND SEA LIFE.” Center for Biological Diversity. 20 May 2014 http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/.

“The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution.” Clean Water Action. 22 May 2014 http://www.cleanwater.org/feature/problem-of-marine-plastic-pollution.

Trimarchi, Maria, and Vicki M. Giuggio. “Top 10 Eco-friendly Substitutes for Plastic.”

HowStuffWorks. 18 May 2009. HowStuffWorks.com. 21 May 2014 http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/sustainable/5-plastic-substitutes.htm#page=5.