Marine Plastics and How You Can Help


Our oceans are home to a host of fantastic animals. Most of us have a favorite marine animal and all of them make important contributions to creating a healthy ecosystem. Not only are they home to great biodiversity, but they are also a source of food, energy, and recreation for people. Animals play a critical role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem whether they are microscopic or the largest to have ever lived. Unfortunately, ocean ecosystems are threatened by the growing problem of plastic pollution. Plastics are everywhere in our daily lives.

Whether it be bottles, bags, or Styrofoam food containers, it is difficult to avoid buying or eating a product that comes in single-use plastics.

Part of the reason plastics have become so prevalent is that plastic materials can be transformed into all types of materials. Plastics can be hard or soft, durable or breakable, produced in any color, and more. Many of the plastics used today are designed to only be used once (think water bottles, straws, and trash bags). After the plastics have served their purpose they are thrown away. If they don’t make it the landfill, they often end up in our oceans and waterways. Since plastics take several centuries to decompose, they may be out of sight, but they are not going away any time soon.

When large plastics enter the environment, they pose a risk to many of our favorite marine animals. Animals can become entangled in large plastics and small plastics can be accidentally eaten by animals who confuse them with food. Large single-use plastics can also break down into tiny microplastics that range from the size of a grain of rice to microscopic particles. These tiny particles can be ingested by smaller species including turtles, fish, and seabirds. Ingested plastics can physically damage organs, fill the stomach leaving the animal unable to eat, stifle growth, suppress immune functions, and leach hazardous chemicals, such as phthalates, lead, and mercury, that disrupts hormones.

Phthalates are chemical additives that help to make plastics flexible and can enter a marine environment by leaching out of plastic littering the environment, in wastewater, and from chemicals being disposed of during the plastic manufacturing process. Recently, phthalates were found in biological samples from bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay. Not only do phthalates affect aquatic species but they can also be found in humans and are linked to serious health issues such as birth defects and asthma. The effects of ingesting plastics are a health concern for humans and dolphins as both are top predators in their environments. It is critical that we decrease our usage of single-use plastics and work towards removing them from our marine ecosystems.

How can you help? One way to help is by avoiding single-use plastics! You can reduce your plastic use by investing in alternative products such as a BPA-free water bottle and reusable grocery bags. When you do have plastics, make sure to recycle them. Another way to help is by cleaning up after yourself after your picnic or day at the beach.

Feel the need to do even more? Great, volunteering at a local river or beach clean-up event is a fun activity with friends and family that removes plastics from our waterways! If you remove trash from along a coastline or waterway, make sure to log your haul into NOAA’s Marine Debris Tracker app!

-Written by Lisa Lauderdale, Postdoctoral Fellow of Animal Welfare Research at Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo

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Posted: 5/27/2020 2:12:53 PM by Sean Keeley

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