Plastic marine debris is commonly found among the shells on our beaches, but there is plenty we can do as citizens to reduce this problem. 

Plastic marine debris is commonly found among the shells on our beaches, but there is plenty we can do as citizens to reduce this problem. 

Marine debris and plastic pollution are challenging problems facing our ocean ecosystems and the planet as a whole. Marine debris is the unwanted and lost material produced by humans that ends up in our waterways and oceans. It can include anything from a straw to derelict fishing nets to an abandoned boat.

Items collected during a beach cleanup on Captiva. 

Items collected during a beach cleanup on Captiva. 

Plastic waste makes up a huge proportion of marine debris. Plastic is everywhere, and it's easy to use it and dispose of it without thinking. However, we should all consider where it goes when we're done with it, and we can all take steps to minimize its impacts on our health and the planet. 

When plastic is left in our environment, it doesn’t go away. It is actually made to last long periods of time, so it doesn’t biodegrade for many thousands of years. Because of its chemical structure, plastic just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, called nurdles, but never goes away. 

Seabirds often mistake small pieces of plastic for food, which takes a toll on the health of individuals and entire populations. 

Seabirds often mistake small pieces of plastic for food, which takes a toll on the health of individuals and entire populations. 

This is a problem because plastics can harm the environment and humans in many ways. Plastic is ingested by, entangles, and disrupts the habitats of local wildlife, taking a toll on animal populations. This is particularly common in seabirds, because small pieces of plastic closely resemble the food that they eat, but plastic affects many other animals in our ecosystems as well.  

Plastic also takes its toll on humans. Since it releases harmful chemicals, it can affect our groundwater, find its way into our bodies, and affect our internal processes. The chemicals that find their way in to our bodies have been linked to devastating health conditions. The financial costs of cleanup and medical treatment related to plastic pollution also impact our economy.

Plastic pollution can be found virtually everywhere. Whether it is left on the beach, lost out of a vehicle, or put into a large landfill, some plastic will always make its way to the ocean. 

Alaina Steinmetz organized a cleanup in her Wisconsin community. No matter where you live, you can help care for the ocean by cleaning up trash. 

Alaina Steinmetz organized a cleanup in her Wisconsin community. No matter where you live, you can help care for the ocean by cleaning up trash. 

There are so many ways that this issue can be avoided. One of the first steps you can take is to minimize the amount of plastic you use. This can include buying fresh vegetables without wrappers, switching to glass or stainless steel containers and drinkware, or can be as simple as saying “no straw please.”

Another way to help abate plastic pollution is to pick up litter when you see it - individually or with a group of friends, and even if you don't live near the beach. Anyone can make a difference, as Alaina Steinmetz, an Ocean Tribe member from Wisconsin, demonstrates. She has taken it upon herself to raise awareness about debris problems in her area. With organized clean ups under her belt, she is well on her way to becoming a great steward for our environment and an inspiration for anyone looking to make a difference.  

Additional items collected during Alaina's cleanup of a Wisconsin river (which, of course, leads to the sea). 

Additional items collected during Alaina's cleanup of a Wisconsin river (which, of course, leads to the sea). 

One other way to help is to learn and share your knowledge. Learning what you can about a problem will help you and others become more informed about how to make a difference. Once you know what to do, all you have to do is act on it.  The planet we live on and its inhabitants will thank you. 

For further information you can check out the Plastic Pollution CoalitionNOAA's Marine Debris Program, and many other organizations that focus on the plastic pollution problem. 

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