by Katharine Daniels
June 8 is World Oceans Day – a growing global celebration of the big blue body of life that covers 71 percent of the earth’s surface.
“The ocean makes life on Earth possible,” reads the 2006 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) publication "Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas." Generating nearly half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, the ocean “absorbs huge quantities of carbon dioxide, governs our climate and weather, regulates temperature, drives planetary chemistry, harbors most of the water and contains the greatest abundance and diversity of life on Earth.”
Yet, at a mind-numbing rate, humans are littering the sea with debris to the point that the UNEP report cited above estimates “over 46,000 pieces of litter are on the surface of every square mile of ocean today.” Seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales, and fish all suffer from marine debris entanglement and ingestion.
One affected bird is the Laysan albatross. At home in remote portions of the North Pacific, the Laysan albatross feeds on squid and fish eggs floating on the surface of the water. Mistaking floating plastic for food, the Laysan albatross feed plastic to their young. Scientists report that on Midway Atoll, as many as half of the albatross chicks born each year die of starvation. Inside the dead birds stomachs scientists find bottle caps and other discarded plastic items ingested instead of food.
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a Laysan albatross named “Makana” teaches visitors about the threats albatross and nearly one million other seabirds face from plastic pollution. I met Makana and Sarah-Mae Nelson, the Aquarium’s Climate Change Interpretive Specialist, last month at their daily program on plastic pollution.
Living on the edge of the Monterey Bay for most of my life, I have waited many years to see an albatross. Every boat trip out to sea, I would watch the sky hoping for a glimpse of one of these large magnificent birds. I never expected my first sighting to be in an interview that included scratching Makana’s head.
“People know that there are a lot of ocean problems, but they don’t necessarily know what they are or what to do about them,” Nelson tells me. The ocean seems very far away and things like the economy are more forefront in people's minds. The ocean just seems like it is so big, it is just going to take care of itself.”
But unfortunately, it is not.
At the heart of this issue, according to Nelson, is that while most of are aware that marine debris litters our oceans, we have not recognized our own connection to the problem or what we need to do about it. “We often feel like we use an item, we put it in a recycling bin, and we are done. We’ve done out part. It ends there. We help save the planet.”
That was certainly the case with me. I buy recyclable plastic goods that store everything from my Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap to the honey I squeeze from a plastic bear into my tea. My liquid laundry detergent and allergy eye drops flow from plastic dispensers. And all the take and toss plastic – the lids on my Peet’s coffee, the straw in my drink at a restaurant, the plastic bottle of mineral water I pour from at dinner - I recycle. But what I learned from Sarah-Mae Nelson is that “if there is not a demand for a product that is made out of those recycled materials, then it won’t be used.”
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “only 7 percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2009 was recovered for recycling.” Elaborating, Nelson tells me, “You may put [plastics] in a bin and they may go to a storage facility but unless there is a company that makes recycled products that has a demand for materials there is going to be no closed loop on that strain.”
But how does all the plastic that is either recycled or thrown away eventually end up in the ocean? One reason is overseas shipping. “If you have a cargo ship, and you have a container on that cargo ship, and there is a storm and you lose one container, or two containers, up to eight containers you don’t have to report it. Only if you lose more than eight containers do you have to report that those containers were lost.”
Thousands of containers go overboard every year filled with both recycled and virgin plastic materials, according to Nelson. One ship recently lost 10 million plastic bags, never before used, that went straight to the bottom of the sea.
Another reason is that “plastic is very light, very buoyant and it can be picked up in the breeze and anything that can be blown can be blown into the ocean. If it ends up in an alley or a street or a curb – storm water, storm drains, all ends up in the ocean. If it ends up in a lake in Kansas, it can eventually end up in the ocean. If it ends up in the Columbia River in Oregon, it can eventually end up in the ocean.”
Ron Ritter, owner and founder of Pangaea Explorations, studies the impact of plastic waste accumulating in our oceans. He believes a plastic bottle dropped “in the center of Europe, or in the US, or in Asia…[will] eventually find its way to the oceans, as everything roles down hill.”
As Nelson tells me, “It is not so much about recycling,” as it is about “precycling – the idea of thinking about what your product is a made of and where it is going to end up before you buy the product.”
Since meeting Makana and Sarah-Mae Nelson, precycling has been forefront in my mind. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation reports that in some areas plastic is “six times greater than zooplankton floating on the water’s surface.”
According to Nelson, “There is something that happens called ‘adsorbtion’ and that’s when pollutants…stick to the outside of plastic.” When albatross like Makana mistake a piece of plastic for food, “they are not just getting the plastic, they are getting all the pollutants that were attached to that.”
It is easy to see how the issue get’s “magnified up the food chain.” It becomes “not just the problem of an animal having a full stomach but it is also the problem of the pollutants impacting it.”
When I asked how it is that our society does not think twice about using once and then tossing copious amounts of “disposable” products made out of a toxic material that never degrades, Nelson tells me it is time to “redefine what it means to be American.” When it comes to plastic usage, the United States needs to become “the leader in the world, instead of being the one the world looks at and points fingers.”
The daily programs with Makana inspired Nelson to commit to a plastics-free year to show others, for lack of a better phrase, we can turn the tide on this issue. “I really think that a national identity as a consumer aware public needs to be reestablished.” For me this awareness means refusing single-use plastic, renewing or repurposing plastic instead of throwing it away, and precycling before purchasing.
The name “Makana” means gift in native Hawaiian – a far stretch from the metaphorical “curse” the term “wearing an albatross around your neck” implies. In the case of marine plastic pollution, we all carry the burden of the “albatross” until we make the necessary changes. We are all lucky to have the example of Makana, this beautiful sea bird, and Sarah-Mae Nelson to show us the way.
In 2014, Kate Daniels Kurz sat down with Sarah-Mae Nelson for a second interview. Click here to watch that interview. - Ed.
For more information about what you can do, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Ocean Issues page on Albatross & Plastics. - Ed.
About the author:
Katharine Daniels is the founder and executive editor of The WIP.