By: HEATHER A. HOLLOW
Despite political pushback against scientific judgment, it is widely understood that human activity is the primary cause of climate change. Accordingly, planet earth and its ecosystems are the victims of human choices. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that plastic production in 1964 will more than quadruple by 2050. As dependence on plastic increases, along with poor waste management, the majority of this non-biodegradable material ends up in the ocean. Consequently, this has created a large and growing island in the North Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific garbage patch. It is vital that dependence on plastic be reduced in order to clean up the trash that is harming both marine life and human health, as well as to minimize the damaging effects of climate change.
A noticeable cycle of human choices and outcomes perpetuates this problem. First, petroleum is used to make plastic. During the production process, the exploitation of this hydrocarbon affects the Earth’s natural greenhouse gases. This production results in the emission of greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere, which leads to a rising temperature. Petroleum, a fossil fuel whose access is resource intensive due to its underground location inside of rocks, is wasted on producing plastic. It is estimated that about 8% to 10% of our total oil supply goes to making plastic. In the US, 12 million barrels of oil a year could be saved by reusing plastic bags or choosing recyclable ones. The human purpose of plastic is brief, but the consequences of its use continue for hundreds of years after its disposal. Due to plastic’s lack of biodegradability, it doesn’t just disappear; often it accumulates in the ocean.
Second, heavy consumption across the world and improper disposal mean the numbers add up. From the 300 million tons of plastic produced, 8 million tons ends up in our oceans. With the ocean being the final resting place of this plastic, there are consequences on marine life. Material injuries or death, such as when animals are caught in six-pack rings, demonstrate how sea creatures are vulnerable to the dangers of plastic. In addition to this, marine life already suffers from rising temperatures as a consequence of climate change. With the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean estimated to be the size of France, the products of human choices have devastating effects on our oceans and their habitants.
Third, through the release of toxins, such as dioxin and other pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and subsequent consumption by wildlife, plastic can have negative repercussions for human health; infected animals eaten by humans can be poisonous. Specifically, “Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have been linked with reproductive, developmental, behavioral, neurological, endocrine, and immunologic adverse health effects.” Human choices are harming not just the environment, but also damaging individuals. This is a particular concern for island nations and countries that rely on fishing as both an economic means and as a way of life.
Led by the Plastic Oceans Foundation and British entertainment website LADbible, a new movement calling for nationhood of the garbage patch was introduced on World Oceans Day in 2017. These groups have submitted an application for independence to the UN Secretary General. The garbage patch will be called the Trash Isles, with a currency, flag, stamps, and passport; the requirements to be a nation. The purpose is to kick start action and awareness to remove the garbage. If the Trash Isles are granted nationhood, the Political Declaration on Pollution of the UN will oblige countries to clean it up. While the effectiveness of this campaign remains to be seen, the measures being taken speak to the necessity of action.
Human activity and human choices continue to change the Earth’s climate and environment. In the case of plastic, the cycle of neglect has dire consequences for the ocean, marine life, and human health. Although the effort to combat climate change is debilitated by political inaction, the harm of marine debris has negative consequences for people now. The Plastic Oceans Foundation and LADbible are working to rally support for the Trash Isles petition and bring the issue before the members of the 2017 United Nations Ocean Conference. Other organizations and NGOs, such as Beat the Microbead, Plastic Oceans, and Ocean Unite are also working to clean up our oceans. Climate change and ocean pollution are global problems, and thus call for a global response. Individuals may feel powerless to help, but just as the Trash Isle is a consequence of human choice, so is the solution. By being conscious of our plastic consumption, we may work to reduce our reliance. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on all of us to be more active in minimizing our use of plastic, which is the first step to cleaning up our oceans.
Heather Hollow is a candidate for a Master of Science in Global Affairs at New York University. She is focusing on Transnational Security, specifically looking at traditional and non-traditional security threats.
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