The oceans have always been an important part of human culture: an integral part of sustaining a large population and transportation between the continents. Every single organism on the planet is somehow affected by the planet. Whether it is through the climate that it controls or the currents that mix it through, life as it exists today would not be possible without an ocean at its foundation. It provides a base from which life has evolved. Life, itself, in its simplest forms, most likely started in the oceans and has been deeply rooted to it ever since.
What the Ocean Means to Us
“The United Nations Ocean Conference estimated that the oceans
might contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050”
(The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics).
For transportation and for fishing, for adventure and for entertainment, the ocean has always been an instrumental part of how humans interact with the world around them. And we have begun to take this resource for granted. We do not take note of where we dispose of our garbage and waste. We fail to notice how these small insignificant pieces of trash build upon each other and how its effects magnify throughout the ecosystem. We tunnel vision on ourselves and forget that we are a tiny and all but insignificant part of the equation. Our actions are having consequences on species that we don’t even know about. They are littering habitats that we have yet to lay our eyes on.
Many people fail to realize how dire the situation is. Garbage patches have built up in all the world’s oceans. From the Arctic to Southern, to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian, all are endangered. The vast majority don’t realize the effect that their everyday actions have on the environment around them. They don’t realize that plastic packaging and the microparticles that become of them are suffocating the life out of the ocean. People are only just starting to get a glimpse of the damage that has been done and what will become of us and our home if we do not cease immediately. Organizations like 4Ocean and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) are trying to unveil the reality to the public and insist that we must do something about it. But besides that, not much is being done to save the oceans. People still continue to deposit waste that will cycle its way into the ocean at alarming rates. And despite some effort to produce an alternative, most major companies and corporations still use packaging that is non-reusable, rarely recyclable, and always non-beneficial. In addition to this, there are some small efforts to educate our youth. One example of this would be the NOSB (National Ocean Sciences Bowl) which brings high school students into a ocean-based trivia competition in an effort to teach them about the ocean and what its current state is. And once this is brought into light, maybe some will take up careers in the ocean sciences, thus solidifying and guaranteeing a future in which we continue to care for and study the ocean and everything that calls it home.
The world’s dependency on plastic has only increased since Leo Baekeland coined the term in 1907 when he invented the first fully synthetic plastic, bakelite (Wikipedia Contributors). And from then to now, it has been finding its way into the ecosystems of Earth, grossly polluting everything from the highest mountains to the lowest valleys. This is largely because the majority of the plastic being produced and consumed either ends up as trash in a landfill or as litter on the streets (Parker). Now someone might say that biodegradable plastics are the answer. Not only do we have to convince companies of the problem, we also have to inform the public about what actually happens when plastics break down and what actually constitutes a biodegradable plastic (Gilson). Companies have been loosely using the term for products that don’t meet the “strict scientific standards” of the Biodegradable Products Institute (Gilson).
Consumer use of plastics has only been increasing exponentially as more and more companies adopt this cheap packaging solution. And because consumers don’t give the thought a second glance, companies are free to use the material that is overtaking the ecosystem. People are only now starting to realize the full extent of what has been happening and the consequences their everyday actions have on, not only them, but on everyone. The effects it's had on the coral reefs and the fish that live there; the effects it's had on the beaches and the crab that live there. The mark its left stretches far and wide, to the north and south and east and west. It is so big, in fact, that we do not know of every single effect it has had. There are so many that it, in itself, is almost uncountable. One of the most well known is marine organisms getting caught in plastic trash and either suffocating, or deforming as they continue to grow around it. On the other side of the spectrum, one that is less well known to the public, is that there have been “findings of stress-related defects [having] great relevance for the future” (Sindermann 10).
Someone might question why this matters to them, and with that I say that it matters to everyone. Why? Because in some way or another you are affected by what goes on in the ocean. It’s such a large part of our planet; it’s impossible to escape its reach unless you leave the planet entirely. Whether you eat the fish, wash with sponges, or rained upon by its water; you are affected by the ocean. It affects the global climate. Without the Gulf Stream bringing warm water, Europe would be as cold as Canada. And as populations of fish and other marine organisms are affected by this pollution, their decreasing populations will start to have a butterfly effect on any connected ecosystems and their connected ecosystems. The sooner we realize this, the better chance we have at correcting the problems we’ve made and preventing new ones from happening.
The way we treat the planet we inhabit has a direct correlation on whether or not these luxuries will be here for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and their children. It will take centuries, if not millennia, to fix the damage we have already done. We must stop now before the damage we inflict is irreversible. We must realize that the actions we take today will have consequences tomorrow. The effect we’ve had already is massive; it’s defined a new era: the Anthropocene. The number of species we see going extinct every day has not been seen for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years. The choices we have made will be hard to reverse, but not impossible. We are the only things, other than time, that can fix the problems we have caused.
And to prevent this from happening, we must inform the public about the problem and how we can go ahead fixing it. They need to know that going for the root of the problem will give us the best chance of eradicating it. Once the plastic has been produced, there is no easy way of “erasing” it. You can burn it, but then that leaves chemicals in the atmosphere. You could recycle it, but not all of the plastic can be recycled and, even then, the recycling process isn’t exactly “eco-friendly”. Because of this, we need to stop it at its source. We need to find a better alternative and convince the large plastic producing corporations to use that alternative. There is still a chance, no matter how small, that we can save all that we have known. Homo sapiens and their descendents have lived on Earth for our entire history, millions of years. What has happened in the past hundred has done more damage than all that came before. There is still hope, we just have to find it. We need to convince everyone that being better for the environment doesn’t mean it has to mean worse for their pockets.