“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” – Mr. McGuire from The Graduate
Synthetic plastics were first invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland and then really took off during WWII as an alternative to scarce resources. Think Plexiglas and Nylon instead of glass and silk. Today, plastics are as common as pizzas and apple pies. It’s in our bedrooms as lamps and tape dispensers, on binders and pencils, in the kitchen as Tupperware and food packaging, in the bathroom as shampoo bottles, toothpaste caps, even our toothbrushes. If only Mr. McGuire could see us now!
Plastic is everywhere and very useful, but the problem arises when we don’t have a use for our plastic anymore and throw it away rather than recycle it. All that plastic eventually makes its way into the oceans where it begins to break down into small bits and pieces roughly the size of your fingernail. These small bits then float around impersonating a tasty snack for marine life including our beloved sea turtles. For our sea turtles, plastic bags and balloons look an awful lot like the scrumptious jellyfish they like to eat. In fact, an expedition collecting fish samples found that over a third of the fish caught had plastic in their stomachs. These plastic bits have the power to deliver a death sentence to whoever eats it either by perforating the sides of the GI tract or blocking flow. This disturbance in digestion essentially kills our marine friends either by internal bleeding and infection or starvation.
It doesn’t stop there either. Even if those little pieces don’t puncture or block the GI tract, they’ll sit in gastric juices that will begin to break down the polymers, leaking toxic chemicals like bisphenol A, (more commonly known as BPA) polystyrenes, and organochlorine pesticides like DDT. BPA is linked to causing reproductive system failures, and DDT’s effects grow as you move up the food chain. The smaller end of the food chain like algae and plankton are affected, and when smaller fish consume the affected algae and plankton, they then accumulate those toxins, and so forth so on all the way up the food chain to you and me who’re eating fish tacos for dinner.
In short, plastics have an undeniable, negative effect on our environment. Our solution can’t be to cut out plastic entirely (although that would be awesome if we could!) We need to be feasible and think on a global scale. What we can do is reduce our consumption. If everyone brought their own bags to the grocery store just once a week, just think about all the plastic we’d save from ending up in the ocean. In the end, it goes back to the catchy slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” that was born out of the 70s with the environmental movement. If we can do that and have the mindset of, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way” (Martin Luther King Jr.) then we will make incredible strides towards a better, greener future. And our marine friends like our sea turtles will certainly thank us!
Take a few minutes to complete this plastic bag survey for Charleston area residents:
Sea Turtle Biologist