(This week we’ll celebrate World Oceans Day with a series of blog posts about ocean health, and seaweeds.)
A couple of months ago, I got to spend a weekend at an old Coast Guard station on the eastern edge of Cape Cod, not far from the National Seashore. Each morning on my beach walk, I picked up trash in the wrack line and scattered on the beach–much of it plastic in the form of bottles, balloons, caps, ribbons, bags, and assorted brightly colored bits. It got me thinking that plastic pieces are the new version of sea glass–a coveted prize for many beachgoers–but so much more harmful. Each day, with a tide cycle bringing in more refuse from the sea, I lugged a shopping bag’s worth of trash off the beach. And keep in mind, this was in mid-April, long before tourist season gets going, when very few people visit those beaches.
Later in April I took part in a roadside cleanup in the small Maine coastal town where I live. I set out with dozens of other volunteers, combing the road shoulders for beer bottles, soda cans, bags, food containers, cigarette butts. Much of what we picked up was plastic. The roadside cleanup keeps our town looking nicer, and being part of it made me feel that I was doing a little bit of good citizenry. But having just seen all of the trash on the Cape Cod beach also made me realize that the roadside trash can also end up in the ocean, even in my little town. Whenever I collect seaweed for my garden at our town dock, I also take a few minutes to pick up trash on that beach. Usually there’s not much there, but there’s always some–a plastic bottle, what’s left of a styrofoam cup, caps, lobster bands. Any amount of plastic is too much in the ocean.
This year’s theme for World Oceans Day–today, June 8–is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet,” and focuses on preventing plastic pollution in our seas. Most of us have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of human-made debris in the middle of the North Pacific ocean. Much of what collects there is plastic, and much of that plastic is in the form of small to tiny pieces called microplastics. According to National Geographic’s online encyclopedia entry, about 80% of the debris comes from land-based activities, in North America and Asia. The other 20% comes from at-sea sources, from fishing and recreational boating to lost shipping containers. The trash collects there because it gets corralled by ocean currents, and does not biodegrade–plastic doesn’t break down, it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Scientists also observe that debris doesn’t just collect on the surface, but some sinks partway in the water, and some settles on the bottom.
Closer to home, one of the program areas of the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) in Blue Hill, Maine, is plastics and microplastics and the risks they pose to humans and marine life, as well as ecological health of the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere. According to the MERI website, an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic now pollute the world’s oceans.
Once in the ocean, plastics can be mistaken for food and eaten by marine life, from birds to turtles. And microplastics–largely invisible to the naked eye–are being found in many seafoods that are eaten by humans as well as part of the marine food chain. Mussels, for example, filter the water around them to sift out food particles, and microplastics can get absorbed in the same way. Luckily for seaweed lovers, since seaweeds don’t filter feed or even have a digestive system, microplastics are likely not a threat to our Dulse, Alaria, and Kelp.
Plastic can make things easier, more convenient, and in some cases, helps us stay safer (think of the plastic embedded in the windshield of your car, which would make the glass shatter into tiny pieces rather than big, pointy shards if it breaks). Plastics seem to be here to stay, literally, because they don’t break down. But they don’t have to end up in our oceans–that is something we can prevent. And we need to remember that plastics haven’t always been around, they were created to use available resources and fill needs (and arguably, to make money). Can’t we now use our creativity and resourcefulness to make and use healthier and more ecologically sound alternatives, and adapt by altering our habits?
First, we can reduce the use of plastics to situations where it really is the best material for the purpose. Buy and use products made from wood, metal, glass, fibers, and other durable, biodegradable, and/or renewable resources when possible. (Did you know that hemp fiber is mildew-resistant and makes an excellent shower curtain? The list is endless.) Ditch plastic shopping bags and use canvas bags or those made with…recycled plastic. Second, we can reuse plastic containers and bags and such, rather than throwing them away. Third, we can recycle plastics as much as possible, so they get a second life in another form. The company Preserve makes a range of products from recycled plastics, from razor handles to dinnerware, and accepts #5 plastics at dropoff locations and by mail in its Gimme 5 program. Fourth, we can remove plastics from the shore and the landscape when we find it.
We need the oceans–not least for the beautiful, nutritious, tasty, and healing seaweeds that grow there–and the oceans need us. Let’s do our part.
~Liz Solet, MCSV team member