Instead of choosing those tired old resolutions that rarely make it past February, I encourage you to make a real difference in 2015, and it can be as simple as utilizing a re-usable cup or non-plastic bag. Plastic waste has become one of the biggest problems facing the environment today, especially for marine ecosystems. A 2008 study by Charles Moore on synthetic polymers in the marine environment claimed that the last two decades have seen the deposition rate of plastics in the environment accelerate past the production rate, making plastic the most common pollutant in the ocean. Basically, plastic bottles and grocery bags continue to pile up in the environment while more and more are being created. Compounding the sheer number of plastic waste is its incredibly slow rate of degradation. It can take decades to break down even when subjected to direct sunlight, and will take even longer if the plastic is underneath the water or trapped in marine sediments. Plastic bags, on the other hand, are petroleum based and will never degrade. The use of biodegradable plastics is encouraging as they decompose a bit faster, yet they still pose a risk because they will not completely dissipate. Like other types of plastic, biodegradable plastics will still leave behind small pieces which will accumulate in the environment. Because of this, Moore estimated marine litter contains 60-80% of plastic resin, with some areas reaching the mid ninety percent. Not only is the litter unsightly, it affects marine species from birds to fish. Sea turtles, for example, often confuse a floating plastic bag for a jellyfish, one of its favorite foods. After the bag is ingested, it blocks the digestive system and the sea turtle rarely survives. Thousands of turtles, whales, and other marine mammals lose their lives annually due to pollution. In fact, nearly one million seabirds die each year because of ocean pollution and plastic garbage.
Plastic pollution has gotten so out of hand that is has literally taken over vast expanses of the oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Ocean, is estimated to be the size of Texas and contains nearly four million tons of trash. SeeTurtles.org (a project site of the Oceanic Society) published details of a recent study that indicated that for every 2.2 pounds of plankton in that area, there is approximately 13.2 pounds of plastic. That is a despairing contrast and certainly not healthy for marine life.
But how do we conquer our dependence on plastic bags and bottles? According to the EPA, Americans use more than 380 billion plastic bags and wraps a year. Yes, that was BILLIONS. That many bags require about twelve million barrels of oil to produce, adding yet another dynamic to this pollution story. While we can’t eradicate every piece of plastic from our lives, we can help lessen our burden of plastic refuse on this planet with two simple changes. First, don’t purchase any drinks that come in a single-serve plastic bottle. This includes water and soda. Now, I know it may be difficult to forgo the convenience of just grabbing one as you are leaving the gas station or grocery store, but it can make a huge impact if everyone just took one less bottle. Instead, use tumbler glasses or even coffee mugs with lids to carry your beverages. These can be re-used multiple times for years.
Second, fabric shopping bags are far more sustainable than any single-use plastic bag and very affordable. I have found several stores that offer reusable bags near the checkout for as low as 99 cents and can fit a large number of groceries with only a few bags. And it may even start to save you money as several states have begun to charge a tax to anyone who still uses plastic bags at the grocery stores. But I encourage you to make these changes before you are forced to do so and save the life of a turtle.
Implementing one or both of these changes (and recycling as often as you can) will dramatically alter the plastic landscape of the ocean for the better. While it will not eliminate all plastic waste, it will take a chunk out of the two biggest culprits. So pledge to make 2015 as plastic-free as possible!