A Bit on Plastic

You probably know that feeling of waking up the next morning and thinking, "Dang, I really should've said that differently!" That's how I woke yesterday.

This week, I was honored to be part of a panel about climate change that featured Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who has done an enormous amount to move the conversation forward. Also on the panel was Julie Oliver, a candidate for the US House of Representatives who has embraced action on climate change, and Louisa McDaniel, a senior at LASA high school in Austin, who has organized student marches and strikes for the climate.

During the conversation, a viewer popped a question into the chat asking about plastics in the ocean entering the marine food chain.

When the moderator tossed it my way, I bumbled through an answer.  I said something like, yes, plastic is all over the food chain, and yes, fossil fuels are the ingredients of plastic like they are they ingredients of climate change. But, I said, that's really a question for a different panel. My intention was to keep the focus on climate change.

I realize now that I should have said it all differently.

Research does show that plastic is all over the place in our seas, from the bottom of the deepest trench to any beach you walk on, no matter how remote.

You can find horrible, tragic stories of albatrosses, whales, turtles, tuna, penguins, and the list goes on, with bellies full of plastic.

It's important to also consider the less charismatic creatures. The most numerous kind of animal plankton in the sea are copepods. (There are 13,000 species of them living in all oceans. I sort of think of them as marine ants.) Because plastic in the ocean breaks down to small bits or washes in in the form of microplastics and then becomes coated in a slick of algae and bacteria, it masquerades as copepod food. And everything else eats copepods, or eats something that's eaten copepods.

No one really knows how much plastic is already in the ocean, but a report from July puts the number at 11 million metric tons per year entering the sea, and that number nearly tripling by 2040 if we don't do anything to change it. It's just a lot.

Our knee jerk response to plastic in the ocean is to ask, how do we clean it up? And that's spawned some very high visibility ideas to create huge floating collection systems.

I worry about these kinds of efforts because the interface between the air and the sea is a vibrant ecosystem, known as the pleuston. It's full of incredibly fascinating and fragile life (including amazing jellyfish). No one has studied the impacts of massive surface scoopers on these creatures.

Also, consider that in all of human history, we've only explored 4% of our ocean. Our maps of the seafloor are only at a scale of 3 miles, while the maps of the moon are at a scale of 350 feet. It's a vast sea and I can't get my head around the scale of a clean up effort, not to mention funding, it would take to scoop out all the plastic.

Instead, most experts agree that we need to focus on slowing the INPUT. And that's what I should have said on the panel last night. Like climate change, the problem of plastic in our seas is a problem of creating pollution. What we need to do is slow the production and flow of pollution from up here on land, be it plastic or carbon dioxide.

The good news is that we already know how to do it: Companies who produce pollution need to be held responsible for the end of life fate of their products and the waste those products produce. There is plenty of innovation around how that can happen, both for carbon dioxide and for plastic.

A critical similarity for the problems of both ocean plastic and carbon dioxide is that they are largely invisible. We can't see carbon dioxide. And the ocean is usually off our radar.

And so far we haven't been able to muster the will to actually do what we need to do for the health of our seas and our climate. Although the tide may be starting to change.


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