A Deeper Look at Plastic Pollution
Photo via Chasant, Muntaka on Wikimedia (2019)
On Nov 30th, 2019, a sperm whale washed up in Scotland with 220 pounds of plastic in its stomach. In another case, a sea turtle was found with a plastic straw up its nose. These are just two instances of plastic pollution badly affecting animals, but there are thousands of cases each year of marine animals dying or suffering from plastic pollution, and the statistics are frightening. 8 million tons of trash are dumped into the sea annually, and that number is only expected to keep growing. So, what are some causes of plastic pollution, and how do we fight against it? Well, let’s find out.
There are many sources of plastic pollution, but the ones that this article will focus on are single-use plastic, fast fashion, and the fishing industry.
Single-use plastic. We all know about bottles, straws, and bags ending up in the ocean, and believe that an easy way to fix the problem is to recycle plastic, but this is not the case. While recycling can be effective with materials such as paper and plastic, it’s much more complicated. There are different types of plastics, and while some can be recycled, some can’t. The truth is that only around 9% of plastic is recycled yearly. Those that aren’t or can’t be recycled will either end up in landfills or incinerated. Certainly, recycling isn’t stopping millions of tons of single-use plastic from entering the ocean. Yes, recycling plastic is important, but if some plastics can’t be recycled, we need to look at other ways to fix the problem.
Fast fashion: the not-so-pretty side of keeping up with fashion trends. Essentially, fast fashion is when companies produce fashion items cheaply and quickly. The clothes are then bought on a dime and thrown away after being worn a couple times. This cycle is problematic because of the materials used and how fast consumers throw away their clothing. Fast fashion is often made from plastic and pollutes the ocean when it gets washed. The plastic particles from the clothes come off in the washing machine and end up in the ocean, becoming microplastics. When it comes to the rate of disposing of fast fashion, it’s also quite alarming. An article of clothing is often only worn 14 times before it is thrown away. Annually, the textile industry produces 92 million tonnes of waste. It pollutes the ocean with half a million tonnes of microplastics yearly. We need to think about these things before buying a new shirt to be trendy.
Finally, the fishing industry. The fishing industry contributes to marine plastic through what is called ghost gear, which is lost or discarded fishing gear at sea. Fishing gear can get lost due to factors such as weather conditions and snags from underwater materials, namely rocks or corals. What makes it so harmful is that it continues to catch marine animals while in the water, and marine animals may ingest the gear, blocking their stomachs and starving them. They may also get entangled in the gear. In addition, ghost gear risks smothering vital marine habitats like seagrass and corals. Ghost gear isn’t a small part of the trash problem, either. By weight, 60% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is ghost gear. Some fish populations have experienced a 30% decline because of ghost gear. Ghost gear has been proven to be the most lethal kind of marine plastic.
There are ways to change this, but efforts must be made both at the level of the individual and on the global scale. Individually, we need to do things such as buying from second-hand stores, using more reusable products, recycling, reducing marine life consumption, or trying to buy it more sustainably. However, it would be naive to say that reducing plastic waste falls entirely on the consumer. Regulations and laws must be put in place to prevent plastic pollution. Single-use plastic must be phased out, the fashion industry must be properly regulated, and governments must use good fishing management practices. Thankfully, it seems that we are now seeing change. Canada plans to ban some single-use plastic products by 2025, but the fight against plastic pollution won’t be over until we never find a whale dead on the beach ridden with plastic again.