Our ancestors knew the sea intimately. They braved her torrential waters seeking greener pastures. We, on the other hand, travel by air or by land. We have lost touch with the ocean, but she is still there. And she is most certainly not a junkyard for us to dump plastic, garbage and all those other things we do not want.
Out of sight is not out of mind. All our actions create a ripple effect. We may not be there to see the consequences of our actions, but it will eventually bubble up to the surface–littering the sea with what it was never designed for; and what never belonged there in the first place.
To indigenous peoples, whales were sacred. They understood and respected the predator-prey relationship. The whale may be an apex predator, but it is still a prey–to us humans. We humans are now the biggest predators that roam the planet. Certain theologies and ideologies claim that we rule and own the earth. But a ruler is different from a leader. A leader has a responsibility to take care of his or her tribe and honour the reciprocal relationship they have with the land and all her creatures.
Even during our short-lived self-proclaimed heroic stint on planet earth, we have plundered and wasted the earth’s precious resources like there’s no tomorrow. And if we keep going the way we do, there will indeed be no tomorrow. Neither for us, nor for the future inhabitants of this planet.
Plastic is non-biodegradable. It is a synthetic substance that lasts forever. Imagine eating plastic for dinner. Most of us wouldn’t do that as we know how terribly toxic it is. But we seem to have no issue feeding it to the animals that reside in the sea.
Single-use plastic is everywhere. The coronavirus pandemic further intensified the lure of the love-hate relationship we have with plastic. Online shopping increased the demand for bubble wrap and styrofoam. Unforeseeable safe-distancing measures increased the demand for face masks and shields as well as gloves and takeaway food containers. Since these items cannot be recycled… we either throw it away or ‘collect’ it for future use. A study by the World Economic Forum on the drinks industry found that the manufacture of four plastic bottles alone releases the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of driving one mile in a car.
Even when we do ‘our very little bit’ and bring along a cloth bag for our shopping, the problem with plastic persists like a thief quietly following your footsteps in the night. Plastic covers virtually everything. Plastic has created a life of unprecedented convenience for us humans–but at what cost?
We do not know. And I’m not sure we want to know. By dumping our unwanted nonsense in the ocean, it is neither out of sight nor out of mind. Sea creatures unwittingly consume plastic. We consume sea creatures. We may be the predators and they may be the prey, but our lives are interconnected. All of Mother Nature’s creations are interconnected. It is why indigenous peoples all over the world respected the interconnected nature of all beings.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year. Waste plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Floating plastic debris is currently the largest source of all marine litter and contributes to the spread of invasive marine organisms and bacteria–which in turn disrupts the entire ecosystem.
The most visible and disturbing impact of marine plastics has to be the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of what must be countless animals that we simply cannot account for. Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fishes and turtles, confuse plastic waste for food and consequently die of starvation as their stomachs fail to digest the debris that we’ve dumped into the ocean. They also suffer from lacerations, infections, reduced ability to swim, and internal injuries.
The conveniences that plastics offer has led to a ‘use-once-and-throw-away’ paradigm of normal which was largely unknown to our ancestors. In 2019, single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year. Products such as plastic bags and food wrappers have an incredibly short lifespan in terms of usage; and yet in the aftermath of their shelf life, they continue to persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
Most of the plastic in the oceans, begins its journey on land. Major rivers carry unwanted litter to the sea, picking up more and more junk as it heads downstream. While much of the plastic trash remains in coastal waters, once it gets caught up in ocean currents, it makes its journey around the world. We may have cleverly and shrewdly drawn up our boundaries on land, but when it comes to the ocean–we have very little control over what happens.
From birds to fish to other marine organisms, millions of animals are killed by plastics every year and the death toll continues to increase. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics.
Most of the deaths are caused by entanglement or starvation. Seals, whales, turtles, and other animals are no longer hunted by apex predators, but instead find themselves choked to death by worthless six-pack rings. Microplastics that are ingested can block digestive tracts or pierce organs, thereby causing a premature death.
Once in the ocean, it is difficult—if not impossible—to retrieve plastic waste. Mechanical systems can be effective at picking up large pieces of plastic from inland waters, but once plastics break down into microplastics and continue their journey in the open ocean, they are virtually impossible to find, let alone remove.
The solution to prevent plastic waste from entering rivers and seas in the first place comes down to better product design and waste management. We can blame big businesses all we want for the problem of plastic, but in my experience it is consumer demand that drives business decisions. Once consumers change their demands, business practises will follow suit or fall in line.
The short lifespan of plastic simply shouldn’t reduce the lifespan of all the other creatures with whom we share the only place we’ll ever call home.