Refuse, Renew, and Precycle this World Oceans Day

by Katharine Daniels
Executive Editor

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.”

Sarah Mae Nelson

Sarah Mae Nelson

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.”

The contents of an Albatros' stomach ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Randy Wilder

The contents of an Albatros' stomach ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Randy Wilder

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.”

Makana, a beautiful Laysan albatross, is the star of a Monterey Bay Aquarium program that teaches visitors how plastics pollution in the ocean affects seabirds. © Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder

Makana, a beautiful Laysan albatross, is the star of a Monterey Bay Aquarium program that teaches visitors how plastics pollution in the ocean affects seabirds. © Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder

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.

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5 comments on “Refuse, Renew, and Precycle this World Oceans Day
  1. djohnsonak says:

    Thank you, Kate. I carry a reusable grocery bag (most of the time), but I often find myself extremely frustrated when I go to stores and they are out of paper bags or worse, do not carry them at all. I can only hope I am not the only one that comments to managers about this issue.
    I think Americans would feel more passionate about plastics if they had more of a connection to the consequences. Until I moved to the coast and took part in a beach clean up with the local Surf Rider Foundation, I did not realize how much trash reaches the ocean everyday. I have been to other coasts in the US that still predominately use plastic bags, styrofoam to go-ware, and do not provide recycling services. Monterey is well known for its green life style, but what are other regions doing? Why is the national grassroots movement missing key areas?

  2. Kate Daniels says:

    We are incredibly lucky to have the Aquarium here – for their vision, research and leadership. But you are correct, marine conservation is not as prevalent in other areas, although I did find some excellent resources while researching this article. (One that comes to mind is the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.)
    While Sarah-Mae did tell me public awareness is increasing in regards to marine debris, most people do not realize their role in plastics pollution – including myself before writing this article! Living away from the coasts it is hard to imagine that a plastic bottle cap left on the street may wind up in the stomach of a sea bird or turn ocean water into a toxic soup.
    An interesting point I did not include in this article is that no one I spoke to while researching this article eats fish from the sea. Too much plastic was the reason…

  3. Leanne Grossman says:

    I was recently hiking in Zion National Park and read a sign about waste. Short and shocking:
    1. Americans use about 50 billion plastic water bottles yearly. That’s 167 per person.
    2. About 38 billion end up in landfills.
    3. these could circle the equator 217 times.
    4. Making them uses 20 million barrels of oil and creates more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
    Source: Zion Natural History Association
    We do indeed have to change our consumptive and expedient habits.

  4. Annie Malia says:

    This is not just an American problem. It is global.I am oh so familiar with all this in Vietnam. A population of some 80 million using untold thousands of plastic bags & bottles per day. There are no paper bags here & drinking water can’t be trusted. The streets are full of eateries dishing everything out in plastic bags & styrofoam. And there is so little awareness or concern.They like the “convenience.”
    I pick up plastic of the local beach every day & do a lot to raise awareness here – even staged a national TV beach pick-up/interview for World Oceans Day, but my work feels like a drop in the ocean, compared to the daily tidal wave of plastic.
    And then there are all the backpackers – horrifying how many plastic water bottles they consume & throw throughout Asia..

  5. awbrown13 says:

    What a fabulous article. Until I read this piece, I had no idea how much of my ‘recycled’ materials end up being un-used or under-used. I like to consider myself to be an aware and conscious consumer, but now I may need to re-asses that assumption. It was obvious to me that some of what I throw in that big-blue-bin was not going to be used; however, I had no idea that more than 90% of to-be-recycled waste is, indeed, not recycled–mind blowing.
    Now, if I am what most could consider “an aware consumer” what about the portion of the population that is not? How do we bridge this knowledge gap? How do we reach the large portions of the population that do not know what “precycling” is and why it is so important to our future?

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