Amazing Nature: Tsunami of plastic killing off sea life

Synthetic rope lies tangled with organic matter on a beach, but will remain to harm the ocean for hundreds of years after the plants decompose. (Switgard Duesterloh photo)

If you expect an article about marine life, you’ll need to read to the end. This article is all about our oceans and the blue planet that is our home.

A couple of weeks ago, the Kodiak Refuge Visitor Center held a film festival. One of the films presented was a documentary called “Bag It.” It featured the story of plastic bags, extended to plastics in general, and our use thereof, the production and fate, and the health effects associated with some of the chemicals used as softeners in the plastics.

Ever since I saw the movie, my thoughts keep returning to it. Like an itch that won’t stop itching, I have been annoyed at the increase of plastic in my life and in the garbage cans everywhere, even long before I saw this movie.

Around the time when I left the country of my birth, Germany, to come and live in Alaska 15 years ago, my brother was working his way up into the management of a recycling firm in Germany in charge of sorting and separating the recyclables and passing them on to their next uses.

The circumstance that created this line of work was a law that required households to separate their trash and invented the “dual system” that marked every recyclable packaging item with a symbol and asked citizens to collect all such items in special yellow bags. These were picked up separately and taken straight to recycling companies such as the one my brother was managing. Hard plastics were shredded, melted into pellets, and then sold as fuel to the steel industry to burn at very high temperatures (thus, they were not really recycled, but turned into a different product).

Nevertheless, while more than 15 years ago I was trained to sort all garbage in the household, and as my nephews and nieces have grown up separating all the garbage they ever had, I still listen to the debate about whether it is possible to get people to do this!

More to the point, there is more plastic and there is more trash. When the problem of increasing garbage is discussed, the blame is always put on the consumer. This week I went to the store to get the family groceries and attempted to avoid all the plastic packaging — then I realized there would be nothing to eat or drink in the house if I did.

As consumers, we no longer have the option to buy foods and other daily household products not packaged in plastic. Moreover, we are made to believe that food packaged in plastic is clean and healthy, when in fact the chemicals leaching from the plastic into the food are agents in many of the leading health problems in our society.

I think it is time to ask producers of daily used items and children’s toys to look for alternatives in packaging. I think some plastic makes sense, but much of what enters our homes is utterly superfluous.

Plastic is made of oil. Some of it is made of natural gas. I don’t need to tell you that not all the plastic packaging finds its way into the recycling or even into a designated landfill. Everywhere we look there is plastic in the environment. For example, I just hiked to the top of Pillar mountain over 6-foot snow drifts. There, in the vastness of a snowy landscape I found — you guessed it — a discarded plastic bottle.

Much of this plastic makes its way into the oceans thrown in from ships, blown in by the wind, lost in small or big disasters, or carried by seagulls and ravens. There are some estimates circulating that it takes a plastic bottle up to 650 years to completely degrade, fishing line takes 850 years (during which it keeps fishing) and a grocery bag takes up to 150 years before it is no longer there.

However, these are estimates, and many plastics don’t really ever “go away” or mineralize into carbon dioxide, water and inorganic molecules.

Mostly, the plastic items get brittle and break up into smaller pieces. Unfortunately, these smaller pieces are mistaken for food by many marine animals. In the center of the Pacific Ocean, scientists have found more small plastic pieces in plankton net catches than plankton organisms. Fish have been found with plastic pieces in their stomachs. On Midway Atoll, thousands of miles from any human habitation in the middle of the Pacific, where the Laysan albatross nests, hundreds of chicks die with their stomachs full of plastic pieces. Around Kodiak, we have five species of birds that will eat plastic if they see it floating on the waves.

Another big and growing problem is the entanglement of marine animals in plastic and derelict fishing gear. In Womens Bay scientists from Kodiak estimated a loss of 16 percent of the king crab to ghost crab pots. These are pots that lost their buoys, stayed on the bottom, and keep on fishing for years.

There are many gruesome pictures and examples of marine mammals caught in netting or in the plastic packaging strips used to tie fish boxes. Many Steller sea lions have died from either curiously swimming into such a loop and getting it stuck around their neck, or ingesting a fish with hook and line.

The plastic problem is getting huge, and it will take many of us to work out solutions. A few things we can all do without much trouble are: When throwing out any plastic, make sure there are no loops for animals to get stuck in; secure your trashcan lids so the magpies and crows don’t scatter the trash where the wind can carry it away; bring your own bags or boxes when shopping – thousands of people all over the world are doing it, so you can, too!

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