I’ve Spent My Life Studying Ocean Trash. Here’s What I Wish More People Knew
My love of the water found me through a love of water sports. As an undergrad at Cornell, I explored marine ecosystems as a certified windsurfing and catamaran sailing instructor.
My curiosity for what lay below to surface led me to a National Geographic Young Explorers workshop with Christian, a blond-haired surfer, and Gordon, a kayaker who had taken a year off to film episodes of Survival in Indonesia, and the three of us decided it was time to find a way to protect our aquatic playground and make environmentalism cool. From there, we set out to film a paddleboarding documentary around Bermuda—the closest populated land mass to a well-known plastic garbage patch—to raise awareness about the rampant plastic pollution in an area that was otherwise so beautiful. Along the way, we visited local schools, organized beach cleanups, and hosted trash art workshops, putting the name "Plastic Tides" on our efforts.
This trip, and the ones that have followed, have given me a unique perspective on environmentalism and adventure, science and awareness. I've seen a few of the 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals killed annually from plastic in our oceans firsthand. I've witnessed some of the 40 billion plastic utensils we go through in the United States alone floating through crystalline blue waters.
The disturbing dichotomy.
Plastic pollution in Bermuda is a juxtaposition of amazing marine life and disgusting waste. Bermuda is surrounded by the Sargasso Sea, named after a type of seaweed. This seaweed floats with the currents at the surface of the water, mixing with a deluge of plastic. You can imagine what this means for fish, turtles, and seabirds that eat and nestle in the sargassum. I was very disturbed to encounter turtles on the surface of the water nibbling on plastic as if it was seaweed. In fact, a lot of the plastic we found during beach clean-ups had teeth dents.
50 percent of plastic produced is single-use. The average lifespan of a plastic bag is only 12 minutes.
While circumnavigating the island on our SUPs we encountered all sorts of plastic: flip-flops, glow-sticks, crates, fish line, even syringes. But the most prevalent offender was without a doubt single-use plastic: utensils, bottles, plastic bags, items that are used once then disposed of. A whopping 50 percent of plastic produced is single-use, and the average lifespan of a plastic bag is only 12 minutes.
What my team and I saw was frightening, but what we didn't see might be even scarier. Microplastics—minuscule plastic particles that emerge from degraded plastic—pose a serious threat to human health, our marine ecosystems, and the planet at large.
These minuscule particles have large surface areas, so they act as magnets for toxins. In the ocean, plastic absorbs toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDTs, which are associated with endocrine disruption and cancer. It releases these chemicals as it degrades, and a single piece of microplastic has been found to be a million times more toxic than the water around it. When ingested by marine life like fish, these toxic balls end up right on our plates. When smaller members of the ecosystem like plankton ingest them, it has a wide impact on the entire food chain and carbon cycle. Eek.
And these microplastics are everywhere. Last year, a weekend expedition led me on a 15-mile hike through the Waimanu Valley of Hawaii to a remote stream. When we analyzed its water, we found the presence of microplastics (an average of 1.5 pieces of plastic per liter). While this is well below the average of 7 pieces per liter, the fact that microplastics were present at all in one of the most remote streams in Hawaii sheds light on just how prevalent it really is.
What can you do to help amid our throwaway economy?
My voyages have shown me that limiting the use of single-use plastics is without a doubt the first step to keeping trash out of the oceans. It's a great point of entry with regards to plastic consumption, and one with visible, immediate results. Replace disposables with reusables (bring along a reusable bag, water bottle, and coffee mug everywhere you go). If you eat out a lot, take it a step further and always have a reusable utensil kit and stainless-steel food container on hand.
Striving to minimize single-use plastics is a lifestyle choice well summarized by the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (compost). So, remind yourself of this motto and remember to say, "No straw please." Find your local bulk food store so that you can fill up on granola, nuts, grains, and oil zero-waste style with your own jar or cotton bag.
Since a huge proportion of marine litter comes from the food industry, I also advocate growing your own food or at least cooking your own meals whenever possible.
Education is key to any lasting change, so urge your friends and family to pack their own food and live a zero-waste lifestyle too. Help your kid start a school campaign to ban plastic utensils at school (yes, these are still the norm in schools across the United States!).
If this piece makes you want to go hug a dolphin too, check out a few more expert-approved ways you can save our oceans.