Few people have unhappy memories of time spent at the ocean. Save for the less fortunate briny-water-related events like the occasional drowning, shark attack or burial at sea, for most, spending time at the coast conjures feelings of play and fun or peace and well-being. Then there’s the whole breathtaking beauty thing. White crested waves skimming over cerulean waters with ripples of translucent robin-egg blue highlighting this most spectacular art of nature as dashes of turquoise catch your eye in a blue-green blended swirl of outstandingness. One can almost feel her alpha brain waves ramping up as negative ions invigorate and regenerate. And there is nothing like the fresh scent of earthy-salty ocean air that is somehow intensified when the auditory senses come to the olfactory party upon hearing the cry of Oyster Catchers overhead beckoning for one another to “Wait! Wait!”
To us, life is simply better by the sea.
Here along the Central Coast of California, we hold a boundless gratitude for witnessing, daily, the marvels of nature. White-caps pounding against jutted rocks, otters rolling in the waves.
In the spring, sharp-eyed onlookers can spot otter babies latched onto a Mama’s belly as she cruises the backstroke in search of violet sea urchins.
Seals seek shelter in the protected coves. They hang out there all day, slumbering on the beach and sometimes in the water, their bodies fully immersed except for those gray, shiny snouts surreptitiously poking out among kelp beds. In the same glance, one can catch sea lions laboriously fumbling over one another for the best rock to catch some rays.
Dolphins, too, are found here in abundance. Playfully chasing one another, the quintessence of spirited lightheartedness, these curious beings tug at every filament of a feeling human’s heartstring.
Tranquil tide pools adorned with sea stars in every shade of coral create the ecosystem for peaceful coexistence between the fascinating anemones. Treasures at every turn.
But then, then, in the not-so-off distance, mystical ocean wizardry materializes. Spouts bursting from the waters are swiftly followed by flukes whipping into the air just before a deep dive for dinner. Whales.
The only phenomenon that could complete this already perfect picture would be to see pairs of albino and jet-black unicorns with glistening, gold-plated horns gleefully leaping, hoof in hoof, over vibrant rainbows as they sprinkle the earth with magical pixie dust turning every human into compassionate, mindful beings who care about all things EARTH.
The Dark Side of Coastal Beauty
This brings me to the dark side of the stunning coastal beauty. There’s an evil out there, and it causes immense harm and casts a morose shadow over all the splendid vibrancy. It lurks in the crevices of rocks and lingers between granules of sand. It bobs on moving tides and settles to the ocean floor.
Litter detracts from the natural beauty of all places – the oceans, the mountains, the deserts. It turns a perfect picture into an altered reality of human ignorance and apathy. But that offense of aesthetics is minor compared to the true reprehensible consequence of this stain on our earth. Litter is not just ugly.
More than 100,000 marine animals die each year due to marine debris, which is mostly plastic. Hopefully by now you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the north Pacific Ocean. It’s not an island so much as a region where floating debris accumulates due to the movement of ocean currents. There is not just one of these regions, there are five in each of the five gyres around the world.
An article from Mother Jones discusses a 2010 study from the journal Science: “between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (that’s about 10.5 billion to 28 billion pounds) of plastic entered the oceans—the median of those estimates is 1.3 times the weight of the Great Pyramid at Giza.” According to the lead author of the study, Jenna Jambeck, the study’s middle figure of 8 million metric tons of plastic is equivalent to five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. How’s that for a happy beach vacation visual? Who is to blame for this disaster? Humans around the globe. Granted, the biggest polluter is China coming in at dumping 5 billion pounds of plastic waste in 2010. Next time you’re shopping, ask yourself if saving a buck on something plastic made in China is worth it. Hell, ask yourself if something plastic, period, is worth it. The US is not faultless in this crime against the earth.
Today we consume more plastics than any metal other than steel. Plastic production has only been around for about 65 years, but half of the cumulative plastic production (6 billion metric tons) has been in the last 13 years, according to Roland Guyer, Associate Professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
According to the Ocean Conservancy the below 2012 graphic below shows the 10 most commonly found forms of marine debris:
Here is Ocean Conservancy’s Coastal Cleanup report (PDF) for 2014.
Repugnant Plastic Facts
- Over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide.
- One single plastic bag can take up to 1000 years to degrade.
- Plastic bags are the second most common trash found in the oceans, following closely behind the #1 most littered item in the world: cigarette butts.
- Only about 5% of plastic bags are recycled. The others are discarded -thrown in the garbage– which is code for tossed into the earth. It doesn’t stop there. Innumerable plastic bags blow out of landfills and garbage trucks and bins. Those bags end up in trees, in rivers and in the ocean.
- Americans use and dispose of 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year and at least 12 million barrels of oil are used per year in the manufacture of those plastic grocery bags.
- There are 3 billion pounds of plastic water bottles added to landfills each year.
- Plastic is NOT biodegradable.
- 1 million plastic cups are used just on airline flights in the US every 6 hours (Chris Jordan, 2010 through Save Our Shores)
- 2 million plastic beverage bottles are used in the US every 5 minutes (Chris Jordan, 2010 through Save Our Shores)
- Our addiction to a disposable lifestyle is wreaking havoc in every corner of the world. Bangladesh put a ban on plastic bags because they get caught in storm drains and exacerbate flooding. Camels in the middle east are unintentionally ingesting plastic and suffocating. And marine animals around the globe are being poisoned by, choked by and suffocated with plastic.
- 32% of marine debris gathered at beach cleanups is cigarette butts according to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.
Animals of all shapes and sizes, including those like this baby otter, get caught in plastic bags and suffocate. Fortunately, for this little guy, after a frantic and bloody attempt of tearing at the plastic, his Mama was able to free him. You see, even otter moms love their babies.
It’s unknown if this little one sustained any permanent damage.
Eighty percent of marine debris, according to the California Coastal Commission, comes from the land. Let me rephrase that. The land is not destroying our oceans, people on land are. The remaining 20% of marine trash comes from fishing vessels, cargo ships and cruise ships. What else are they going to do with all those Styrofoam cups on that cruise to the pristine shores of Alaska, throw them away when they get to shore? Nonsense. Besides, what do you think they do with your other waste? That’s next year’s earth day post.
On a recent trip to Whidbey Island, Washington, we visited the Whale Center and learned about a Gray Whale found dead in the Puget Sound who was in otherwise good health were it not for the 20 plastic bags, surgical glove, duct tape, sweatpants, golfball and other debris in his stomach. Here (it’s a PDF) is the very long list and an image of items found in his stomach. Gray whales are bottom feeders and since there’s trash on the bottom of the ocean floor it gets easily mixed up and into their real food, the alive stuff.
Every year sea turtles die from choking on plastic bags and balloons that they mistake for their favorite food, jellyfish. But really, who is making the mistake? Humans are culpable. Plastic bags and balloons look like scrumptious, juicy, spicy jellyfish in the water. Turtles consume them and suffocate. Marine debris of all sorts including fishing dredges and fishing gear, according to the NOAA is causing harm to sea turtles.
The Collateral Damage of Your Seafood Dinner
Mr. Pepper came up with that catchy albeit pathetically true line. Sea turtles are not the only ocean creatures being killed by fishing equipment and gear, all marine animals are impacted by it. Small baby animals swim into abandoned fishing nets that get caught around their necks. Perhaps not life-threatening at that moment. The animal grows, as he or she should. The plastic, so durable, does not stretch far enough to break. Instead, it stretches far enough to lazily strangle the animal over time. Unable to eat and eventually unable to breathe, the animal dies a painstakingly horrific death as did the juvenile California Sea Lion (below) we found beached in Pacific Grove.
The numerous baby sea lions we’re finding on the beach are dying for a variety of reasons. Perhaps marine debris, but another theory is about the warmer waters. Sardines are farther out to sea in cooler water, which makes it harder for a young sea lion to reach. Another theory is because of salmon season opening up in the Spring, their mothers are getting shot by fishermen as they try to steal bait off hooks. It’s fairly well known that people turn the other cheek when a salmon fisherman shoots a sea lion. The mothers don’t come back to the babies, and they have to fend for themselves eventually dying of starvation.
No matter the reason, marine debris, entanglement, fisherman with guns, all of these deaths are preventable. All are futile.
Over the years, Mr. Pepper and I have rescued a number of sea birds who were hooked and entangled by fishing line. One was drowning before we removed him from the water and brought him to safety.
Get Your Butt off the Beach
When cigarette butts are tossed on the ground, they are not mysteriously picked up by filter fairies. They are washed down storm drains and into local waterways or washed out to sea by the tide. They kill innocent animals and add toxins to the water and soil. In 2014 while visiting Florida, I spoke with a local turtle rescue volunteer. She shared how a cigarette butt had recently been found inside a dead baby turtle. C’mon. A baby turtle! The damage doesn’t end there. During necropsies, cigarette butts are found in the stomachs of a variety of marine animals, babies and adults. I often wonder about the person who dropped the cigarette butt that killed the baby turtle. If s/he would have behaved differently knowing the suffering caused by that single action.
Filters and plastic wrap from cigarette packages remain in the environment for long periods of time. Cigarette butts are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which can take up to 25 years to decompose. Cigarette butts may seem small, but with several trillion butts littered every year, the hazards, cumulatively, are mind-boggling. ~stats from Cigarettelitter.org
Plastic Bits and Pieces
These photos of dead baby Albatross chicks taken by environmental photographer (I just gave him that title) Chris Jordan speak for themselves. They’re from the Midway Atoll where nesting Albatross “chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean.” To see more of Chris’ striking images, check out his website.
Litter Around the World in 1 Minute
If you’re not thoroughly depressed, I haven’t done my job. Either that or you have a powerful denial mechanism. It is a dire situation, and this is coming from a recovering optimist. I refuse to put my head in the sand and pretend everything is okay, because that attitude will not solve the problem. I take my anger and frustration and pick up litter. Sometimes I make art of it, but mostly I recycle or dispose of it properly. Which brings me to the warm and fuzzy portion of my programming. There’s hope if you help.
What Can You Do?
- Reduce. Recycling is totally overrated. Of course, recycling your trash is much better than throwing it all away where it ends up in overflowing landfills. But recycling is no longer enough. It hasn’t been enough since before it began, actually. The earth needs your commitment to reduce, drastically reduce consumption of all things plastic, especially single-use plastics like bags and bottles. There is no logical reason for anyone to accept a single-use plastic bag at the grocery store. I don’t care about your bird cage or garbage can lining. Apply your smarts and innovate another option besides single-use plastic for your everyday needs. Plastic bags have only been in existence since 1977. What in the world did you do before that? It must’ve been like Little House on the Prairie – Pa all up in Half Pint’s grill for putting the fresh eggs in her pocket instead of in the plastic bag.
- Pick it up already! If you’re going to comb the beach to pick up beautiful shells, then pick up some ugly garbage too. Seriously, why would you take something beautiful and not take something ugly? Do you think that cigarette butt on the shoreline is any dirtier than the shell? And pa-lease stop the ludicrous martyrdom. Who cares if you weren’t the one to create the litter? You are part of a human tribe that needs action-takers not whiners. You want a beautiful beach or park or river? Help create those things. Give back by taking trash.
- Speak up. I realize my methodology may lean toward the more radical end of the spectrum. Chasing people down on roadways for throwing shite out their window and confronting gang members for tossing cigarette butts is not necessarily the healthiest approach when it comes to my personal longevity. But I’ve also taken more reasonable actions like walking around with a bucket in Mexico that reads in both Spanish and English “Cigarette Butts Kill Animals.” When I see someone smoking, I ask them to please throw their butts in the garbage instead of on the land, because they don’t biodegrade (well, it takes up to 25 years) and they do kill animals. Most people have NO IDEA that cigarette butts are comprised of plastic. Check out Chris Jordan’s website to see how he’s speaking up in his own artistic way.
- Get your Butt Off the beach. More importantly, stop tossing your cigarette butts on the ground. You could be miles away from the beach or any waterway, for that matter, and that damn butt will take a journey down the street, down the storm drain and into some waterway somewhere. If you’re going to smoke, please keep the harm to yourself. Lots of smokers learn to easily strip their butts of residual tobacco by rolling it between thumb and fingers repeatedly, then placing the filter in a pocket until a garbage can is found. Business owners and locals alike can sponsor a BaitTank from Save Our Shores. Installation of these butt receptacles has reduced cigarette pollution upwards of 70% in Santa Cruz. Click here to learn more.
- Discontinue using plastic straws. They may seem benign, but these beverage suckers are a common hazard to wildlife on beaches and waterways.
- Tell your local food business that you want non-Styrofoam to-go containers. Polystyrene, like all other plastic, does not biodegrade. Making matters worse, it is lighter and carries in the wind and waters more easily. Most waste management companies will not recycle your Styrofoam, so check out these Foam Drop-off Sites. I find myself incredibly proud to be living in a town that respects nature enough to ban Styrofoam.
- Get a reusable water container and use it again and again. Plastic is not only a problem for the environment, but there are chemicals in plastic that directly and negatively impact your health. Just. Please. Stop. There are SO many other options for reusable containers.
- Partake in river and ocean cleanups. Get your hands dirty and see what it’s really like out there. It’s nasty and will only get better if we all pitch in. You can walk away from a cleanup knowing that you did a very good thing – for yourself, for your children. And maybe there will be a party afterward.
- Please teach your children to pick up litter. When I read Well Earth Well Me! at schools, I encourage the children to be litter detectives and to look for the itty bitty pieces of litter to collect. Those tiny pieces of plastic that get ingested by birds and other animals are important evidence to litter detectives. They are totally into it. They get to play and save the world all at once.
- Support plastic bans in your community, or pioneer one. Ask your local representatives to take the initiative to ban plastic bags. They will complain that it will hurt business. That’s BS. People will get over their stubborn selves and adapt. There are plastic ban ordinances throughout US cities. They are doing just fine, better actually. We visited a store in South Africa that charged 80 cents per single use bag. Everyone we saw walking into that store had their own bag. Moral of the story? When it hits the wallet, people adapt. They’ll bitch about it at first, but they’ll adapt. We all adapt.
- Stop balloon releases. The balloons do not float up to heaven. They land in trees and most likely the nearest ocean. If you need to release something, let go of your need to consume plastic. Be creative and do something differently. Share your ideas in the comments section below. I am guilty of having participated in balloon releases. It’s a beautiful idea for a memorial – putting notes or thoughts into the balloons and watching them rise up to the skies. In retrospect, my balloon of comforting thoughts intended to mourn and memorialize a dead human friend may have killed a living marine being. That’s messed up.
- Check out How Can I Recycle This? for innovative trash ideas.
- Try upcycling by turning trash into art.
- Recyle monofilament fishing line, ooooor here’s a novel idea, leave the fish for the marine animals.
- Get a “Hold Onto Your Butt” bumper sticker or wait until I create my own bumper stickers Get Your Nasty Butt off the Beach.
- Stop buying plastic products made in China. China is the biggest offender of ocean plastic pollution, and we are indirect accomplices to this offense when we purchase their products.
- Check out what the EPA is doing to prevent marine debris.
- Join my litter crusade and take back our earth from all the vile rubbish.
Ironic Litter Photos
We need a clean up on aisle earth!
Today on Earth Day, this is my EmOCEANal plea (another Mr. Pepperism). Every single person must take action. Please. I don’t expect for everyone to get their britches all in a twist as I have a propensity to do, but I do hope with all my remaining firing neurons and every nurdle (look it up) of DNA that you take my plea for help seriously. Any action is some action. And everything you do to make the earth a healthier, more plastic rubbish-free place is a step in the right direction. Call yourself whatever you want: Waste warrior, rubbish crusader, earth souldier, just go out there and help. Please join my crusade again litter, and help make every day Earth Day.
Taking a line from Well Earth Well Me: Won’t you help me, won’t you please? To make a well earth for you and me?
What are you doing to help create a Well Earth?
Share in the comments section below.
You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.
~Native American Wisdom
The packaging for a microwavable “microwave” dinner is programmed for a shelf life of maybe six months, a cook time of two minutes and a landfill dead-time of centuries.
~David Wann, Buzzworm, November 1990
When it comes to problems of earthly proportions, neglect is equivalent to abuse. By not helping to resolve the problem, you remain part of the problem: my problem, your problem, our problem. Let’s get out there and tackle this thing!
~Kenda Swartz Pepper
Many thanks to the help and support of Scott Kathey, Federal Regulatory Coordinator of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA.
Facts about Plastic
California Coastal Commission
Save Our Shores (one of my all-time favorite organizations)
Here is an in-depth review about plastic debris in the ocean
Jambeck Research Group
NOAA’s Marine Debris Program
Plastic Marine Debris Fact Sheet from NOAA