When did you first become aware of the ocean plastic pollution crisis? For many people, it all started half a decade ago with a viral video. In 2015, a team of scientists conducting on-the-water research in Costa Rica found a male olive ridley sea turtle with a 10-centimeter-long single-use plastic straw lodged in his nostril. They removed the straw and filmed the emergency surgery. That video, once posted on YouTube, went viral and helped raise awareness about ocean plastic pollution and its impact on marine life. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” seems appropriate when considering its impact.
Ocean animals have captured the imaginations of us land-dwellers for millennia, and it is no wonder that plastic’s tendency to choke, strangle and drown these creatures is such a clear call to action. But no one had ever quantified how pervasive these ocean animal-plastic interactions are, until now.
In a report released last week, Oceana found evidence of nearly 1,800 marine mammals and sea turtles from 40 different species swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic in United States’ waters since 2009. Of those ocean animals, 88% were species listed as endangered or threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act. Plastics affected animals at all life stages, from juvenile sea turtles to seal mothers with actively nursing pups. More than 20% of the sea turtles that had ingested plastic were recent hatchlings – some merely a few days old. And in cases where plastic ingestion was the likely cause of or contributor to death, seven involved just a single piece of plastic.
Most disturbing of all, “the findings offer a glimpse of a larger problem,” as The New York Times wrote of Oceana’s report. The animals accounted for are far fewer than the true number of sea turtles and marine mammals that consume or become entangled in plastic in U.S. waters. Not every harmed animal is found, and not every found animal is reported to authorities, such as local animal stranding organizations. Regardless, our report found cases in 21 of the nation’s 23 coastal states. The U.S. is the biggest producer of plastic waste and debris in the world – 42 million metric tons in 2016 – and up to 2.24 million metric tons of that plastic waste entered the ocean, the third most of any country. We Americans must own and lead on solving this problem.
Globally, scientists now estimate that 15 million metric tons of plastic wash into the ocean every year. That’s about two garbage trucks’ worth of plastic entering the ocean every minute. This will increase. Plastic production is expected to quadruple by the year 2050, and if nothing changes, the amount of plastic entering the ocean is projected to triple by 2040. Recycling alone won’t solve this crisis. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.
We must turn off the tap on the deluge of throwaway plastic being produced and polluting our oceans, and that’s exactly what Oceana’s campaigns are doing. Earlier this year, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress. This first-of-its-kind legislation would shift the burden of plastic pollution away from consumers like you and me and onto plastic producers. Thanks in part to Oceana’s grassroots campaigning, it now has more than 100 cosponsors. Also, the state of New York took measures to prevent Styrofoam food containers and packaging from choking marine life. Municipalities like Tampa, Florida and Montgomery County, Maryland passed Oceana-supported reductions in single-use plastics. Internationally, Belize and Peru passed throwaway plastic reducing legislation, and similar measures in Canada and Chile are making progress. Oceana and nearly 650,000 activists are also calling on companies, like Amazon (which shipped 7 billion packages in 2019), to do the right thing and reduce its plastic use. Together, with your support, we are steadily turning off the tap.
While this new report presents grim findings for marine life and our oceans, I encourage you to consider how many more people it may inform and inspire to take action. Plastic is a human-created problem with a human-powered solution. Just in my lifetime have throwaway plastics – and the ensuing pollution – become ubiquitous, and I believe we can end this crisis much faster than that. I leave you with the following quote from Oceana Senior Advisor Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau, who recently discussed this issue with Spectrum News:
“We can address that. We can change that. We can design a solution for that. And, if people ask for that (solution), and really insist that the brands that they love and the companies that they buy from find an alternative solution, I think that those companies will listen.”