Question: I’m concerned about plastic pollution and the Great Pacific Patch. I’m appalled by how much litter is on my local beach. Where does all the plastic pollution come from and what can people like me do about it? - Anne, Ohio
Answer: Ocean plastic pollution is a complex topic and there’s lots of misinformation floating around, but there are solutions!
In my experience, plastic pollution is one of the most emotionally-charged issues in ocean conservation. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to a classroom about marine biology and didn’t receive a question about it. The bad news is that this is a serious, complicated issue, and there is a lot of bad information about both the problem and how people can help. The good news is that the problem is solvable!
First, let’s talk about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This accumulation of trash is often wrongly visualized as a giant clump of trash so vast and dense that you can walk on it, but the reality is that it looks more like a soup of tiny plastic particles. That doesn’t make it less of a problem, but an accurate understanding of the issue helps separate bad ideas from solutions that could actually solve it. Have heard of, for example, the Ocean Cleanup project, which proposes putting a giant net in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to remove the plastic? I haven’t found a single credentialed expert in ocean plastic pollution who thinks that this is a good idea. Those who understand this issue know that this device will not remove very much plastic (because most ocean plastic is very small and not right at the surface,) but will kill large amounts of marine life (because that’s what giant nets do).
There is photographic evidence it already has:
Second, your point about plastic on the beach is a great tie-in to expert-endorsed, evidence-based ways to help solve the plastic pollution crisis. Organize or join a coastal cleanup, a volunteer event associated with groups like the Ocean Conservancy. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world pick up and log trash from their local beaches during Conservancy clean ups, which provides vital data for scientists on what kinds of trash are out there as well as cleaning beaches.
Where does that trash come from? Well, some of it is runoff from land, but you’ll also find trash that’s been in the ocean for years or decades and has been circulated back to the beach—therefore, beach cleanups both help stop plastic from getting into the ocean (which experts overwhelmingly say is a far better solution than trying to scoop plastic out of oceanic gyres), and do a far better job at removing trash that’s already in the ocean than the Ocean Cleanup.
A lot of conservation activism these days is “voting with your wallet,” choosing to support or not support products and companies that share your values. If lots of people choose not to use plastic straws, plastic shopping bags, plastic water bottles, or disposable cutlery, that adds up…though please note that city-wide bans on plastic straws are a social justice issue, because there are absolutely people who need plastic straws.
While helping to clean up your local beach or reducing your personal consumption of single-use plastic is great, ultimately to solve this problem we’re going to need systemic change which doesn’t come from individual purchasing and product use decisions. We’re going to need to do things like overhaul stormwater management, develop new materials, and ban certain manufacturing processes. People find this answer unsatisfying, because it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, and it isn’t obvious that you’re personally helping like an aluminum water bottle is, but it’s what the experts say we need to do.
Ask a Marine Biologist is a monthly column where Dr. David Shiffman answers your questions about the underwater world. Topics are chosen from reader-submitted queries as well as data from common internet searches. If you have a question you’d like answered in a future Ask a Marine Biologist column, or if you have a question about the answer given in this column, email Shiffman at WhySharksMatter@gmail.com with subject line “Ask a marine biologist.”
Dr. David Shiffman is a marine conservation biologist specializing in the ecology and conservation of sharks. An award-winning public science educator, David has spoken to thousands of people around the world about marine biology and conservation and has bylines with the Washington Post, Scientific American, New Scientist, Gizmodo and more. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, where he’s always happy to answer any questions about sharks.
The views expressed in this article are those of David Shiffman, and not necessarily the views of Sport Diver or Scuba Diving magazines.