by Mason Elliott

5.25 trillion pieces. According to National Geographic, as of 2015, that is how much plastic is in our oceans. With plastic taking an average of 400 years to degrade and 290,000 tons of it sitting atop the oceans, the changes that need to be made lie in our hands. Unfortunately, according to National Geographic, out of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced, we have only recycled around nine percent of it. So where does it go? National Geographic points out that every year eight million metric tons go straight into the ocean and the rest is either in landfills or littered around the earth.

PULSE set out to find how to consume less.

Garbage Patches

Dr. Clay Arango, an associate professor of biological sciences and environmental studies at Central Washington University, describes “there is actually a garbage patch in every major ocean basin.” However, the first discovered and most well known garbage patch, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, was inadvertently discovered by Captain Charles Moore who happened to noticed a lot of waste in the ocean while sailing. Dr. Arango explains that plastic builds up in the middle of every major ocean because “the oceans are turning slowly in what are called gyres,” and

“any trash in the ocean is going to get pulled into the middle of that funnel.”

On social media you see posts showing absurd amounts of trash in the ocean. Sometimes so much that you can’t see the water. This isn’t representative of what is happening in the middle of the ocean though. As Professor Ralph Hitz, who has been teaching geology and oceanography at Tacoma Community College for 21 years explains, “A lot of the plastic (in the ocean) gets broken down by sunlight into these tiny little pieces called ‘microplastics.’”

How Does This Affect Wildlife?

No one can be totally certain what kind of long-term impact this amount of plastic in the ocean will have on marine life just yet. Hitz brings up as the microplastics get ingested by smaller marine animals, who in turn get ingested by animals higher on the food chain, there is a danger that these plastic start to get incorporated into the food web. The current effects, however, are apparent. Hitz explains one of the main problems occuring right now is “the animals can ingest the plastic and they can choke on it.” He goes on to explain,

“(the plastic) can fill up in their stomach and make them feel full but then they starve to death.”

Dr. Arango points to evolution. In the open ocean there isn’t an abundance of food so “the animals have an instinct to eat whatever is in front of them.” Historically this hasn’t been an issue, but now they are eating plastic, not food. He goes on to say, “The evolutionary change happens very slowly so there isn’t enough time for the organisms to adapt and differentiate between a small plastic pellet and a small crustacean.”

How to Help Reduce Waste

Consume less. Dr. Arango states “cleaning out the oceans is impractical.” So, in turn, we need to be proactive and consume less. As difficult as it may seem. Dr. Arango explains making a conscious effort to consume less can have a huge impact.

“If something is optional that you don’t need, just don’t buy it.”

There are many relatively easy ways to use less plastic in day to day life. EcoWatch gives ideas like, using reusable bags at grocery stores, using reusable water bottles, using paper straws and not throwing away electronics. Both Hitz and Dr. Arango address the issue that limiting pollution must be made through social change, which is where Environment Washington is making an impact. Environment Washington is an environmental advocacy project directed by Bruce Speight. He explains that, along with adjusting our everyday lives, major changes must be made through local, state and federal policy. By making clean energy and a clean environment a priority in the government significant, sustainable progress can be attained.

“We are looking to pass a ban on plastic bags in the state of Washington with something called the ‘Reusable Bag Bill,’” Speight states. An easy way to make a huge impact is to use your voice to speak out and support bills that will lead to an environmentally sustainable future. With the oceans full of plastic and massive amounts being produced and consumed daily it is important to make an effort to consume less.

Plastered by plastic: 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced but how heavy is that?

8.3 billion metric tons is equivalent to 25,000 empire state buildings, 80 million blue whales and 1 billion elephants.

335 million metric tons are produced every year (half are single use plastics).

6.3 billion tons has been discarded as waste.

79,000 metric tons are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

8.5 million metric tons sit at the bottom of the ocean.

Source: Smithsonian Ocean nment/