At many public places like beaches, visitors are only allowed to bring beverages in plastic bottles, because they are tough and will not shatter like glass. But perhaps they should be likewise banned. The properties that make plastic so desirable—namely that it's long-lasting and won't easily degrade—make it a nightmare for the world's oceans.
Plastic accounts for as much as 90 percent of all ocean surface trash. In total, about 20 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, says Megan Herzog, a fellow in environmental law and policy at UCLA. That's more than 7.5 percent of the total 265 million tons of plastic produced each year, according to one estimate.
The world’s oceans are home to five major gyres choked by plastic detritus. The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, the biggest and most famous, is believed to the size of Texas, with its plastic particles outweighing its plankton six-to-one.
So what, if anything, can be done about all this water-locked plastic waste? A whole lot, according to a new report, “Stemming the Tide of Plastic Marine Litter: A Global Action Agenda,” which Herzog co-authored.
The number one solution, she says, would be to create an international treaty or convention, like the Montreal Protocol, to address the issue. That landmark 1989 agreement led to significant and lasting reductions of ozone-depleting chemicals. Like the atmosphere, the oceans are a shared resource, so the problem similarly demands a shared solution.
Plastic trash is problematic for myriad reasons. It never really degrades completely, for one thing; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. Plastic water bottles, for example, take hundreds of years to decompose. So the plastic in these patches is often eaten or taken up by animals, where it can take the place of food and lead to starvation. Herzog pointed out that bags floating in the water can resemble jellyfish, which some sea turtles like to eat.
One simple solution to the problem, said Herzog, would be to ban the use of thin plastic bags, polystyrene (also known as Styrofoam), and the plastic beads used in skincare products. These are amongst the worst offenders, and for which there are often cheap, environmentally friendly alternatives, she said. "That would go a long way to preventing plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place," Herzog said.
This, in turn, could save governments billions of dollars spent annually to clean up plastic pollution, she added. According to a recent study from the EPA, the cost of cleaning up marine litter in the U.S. is $520 million per year—on the west coast alone.
Individuals can also help by reducing the number of single-use plastic items they consume, like bags. In June, Los Angeles became the most populous city in the U.S. to ban free plastic bags in grocery stores. Under the new law, shoppers must use their own bags, or pay 10 cents each for paper bags. About $2 million a year is spent to clean up plastic bag litter in the city.
People can also help with local clean up efforts, and educate others about the problem posed by plastic pollution. It has an impact on everybody because it kills wildlife, fouls beaches, hurts tourism and costs billions in clean up and other damages.
"Plastic pollution has a lot of environmental and economic impacts that will affect an average person's life… but there are policy solutions to any problem," Herzog said.