Plastics and the Environment - 5 Tragic Stories Showing Why Plastics Must Go
There’s a famous story of a shipping container that got lost at sea nearly 30 years ago, scattering 28,000 “rubber” duckies into the ocean. Those little yellow bath toys, actually made of plastic, have been floating around the ocean since that accident in 1992. They continue to turn up to this day – found in places as far apart as Australia, Washington State, and Europe.
That accident gave oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham the opportunity to study ocean currents in a way that had never been done before. In its own way, it proved to offer valuable contributions to science and our understanding of the ocean.
Almost all other instances of plastic ending up into the ocean offer no value whatsoever to our planet. Plastic is choking our oceans and the life within it, and for much of the past half century, the world has considered this problem to be out of sight, out of mind. But this problem will impact all of us in the future if left untreated and unsolved – in fact, it already is causing immense damage today.
Replacing Plastic Straws with Biodegradable Paper Straws - March 19, 2019
The event that spurred us to take action and create Blowholes paper straws took place in the Pacific Ocean, in the southern part of the Philippines. A female whale had washed ashore, dead. When scientists performed a necropsy, they discovered that she had ingested 88 pounds (40 kilograms) of plastic, which was blocking her stomach. The plastic, completely indigestible and too big to pass through her system, prevented her from consuming enough food to survive, essentially suffocating her digestive system.
Her body was filled with plastic bags, which had built up over a long period of time. In some parts of her digestive tract, the plastic bags compressed together, “like a brick”, according to Darrell Blatchley, owner of the D’Bone Collector Museum in Davao City, who was there as scientists opened up the whale’s stomach.
The Philippines, an island nation with its population of over 100 million people almost all relatively near the shore, contributes more plastic waste into the oceans than all but two countries. But this wasn’t the first reported instance of a large marine mammal dying directly as a result of plastic ingestion. It’s not a problem isolated to the Philippines nor is it solely an issue in the Pacific Ocean. The tragic deaths of marine mammals is only a small symptom of a horrible global epidemic.
Base of the Food Chain
Not only is the plastic in the ocean affecting some of the largest creatures on earth, it’s also killing some of the smallest organisms in the world, on an unfathomable scale. Plankton include a wide range of organisms that float around the ocean, mostly too small to see with the naked eye. They represent the crucial bottom step of the food chain and are consumed by small fish and even the largest of whales.
Certain species of plankton, especially phytoplankton, use on photosynthesis to generate energy. As plastic accumulation has begun to block sunlight from reaching their levels of depth, it prevents them from photosynthesizing. The results are catastrophic. Not only does this prevent them from growing and feeding the rest of the aquatic life in their marine neighbourhood, but by cutting them off from photosynthesizing, they also can’t release oxygen into the water. This creates ocean dead zones – which are exactly what they sound like.
Mass Extinction of Coral Reefs
When plastic floats, it kills by cutting off sunlight. And when it sinks, it destroys entire ecosystems from the floor up. Coral reefs are built by corals – living animals that build up colonies over thousands of years. These colonies have for millennia represented homes for a plethora of ocean life. A quarter of all known fish species reside in coral reefs, and 500 million people around the world depend directly on healthy reefs for their livelihoods. Sadly, coral reefs are dying off at an unprecedented rate due to human interference.
Plastics that reach the sea floor where corals grow, especially plastic bags, can suffocate these animals, and the toxins in the plastic harm the life around the reefs. Research has also found that harder plastics can also cut corals and lead to disease, as bacteria can enter these wounds.
Over half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the past 30 years. Plastic isn’t the primary cause of this extinction event, but it’s no doubt contributing to it.
Seabirds Are Confusing Plastic for Food
We’ve all seen the pictures – deceased, partially decomposed seabirds with their stomachs open, showing fully intact pieces of garbage. While not every instance of birds eating plastic directly results in death, research is showing that it’s become increasingly uncommon to find seabirds that haven’t yet consumed some amount of man-made plastic waste. Like in whales, plastic is impossible for birds to digest, causing them to suffer pain and various health ailments, and shortening their lifespans as a result. Plastic waste has been found in 90% of seabirds, a number that sadly continues to rise.
For almost the entirety of history, brightly coloured, food-shaped objects made of plastic simply haven’t existed. As a result, animals often can’t distinguish such garbage from food. If you live far from the ocean but near any body of water, this should hit close to home: It’s not just seabirds living near oceans who are affected. Plastics are invading freshwater lakes and rivers, and are poisoning fish in places like the Great Lakes. The problem is particularly concentrated near cities like Toronto and Detroit: where there are humans, there’s plastic, and there’s plastic litter. Even well-intentioned citizens putting their garbage in bins can’t guarantee that their garbage won’t ever fall out of a garbage bag at some point, to be blown by the wind, eventually into a river or a lake.
Effects of Plastics on Human Health
It’s not just animals who are being hurt by plastics. The plastic waste epidemic is causing harm to human health.
When we consume fish or seafood, we’re consuming the toxins that have built up within their bodies. Through a process called bioamplification, the concentration of poisons increases as you move up the food chain. While all plastics are unhealthy to ingest, some plastics are particularly toxic, containing trace amounts of lead, cadmium, and mercury. Bisphenol-A (BPA) is another common toxin in plastics that finds its way into our bodies through our food supply – it’s linked to disrupting hormonal function and preventing normal growth.
It’s impossible to measure the actual effects of plastic on human health through any sort of scientific study. The problem is almost all modern humans have daily, repeated direct contact and exposure to plastic, from our food and beverage containers, to the clothes we wear, to the electronics and other everyday objects we touch and hold. Many of us also get additional indirect exposure to plastic through the food we consume. There’s no doubt that this repeated exposure has some detrimental impacts, and the best we can do is to find substitutes for plastics at every reasonable opportunity.
You CAN Make a Difference
While the story of the 28,000 rubber duckies may be cute, the sheer volume of plastics in the ocean is a terrible and nearly immortal beast. Every minute, it’s estimated that the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic ends up in the oceans around the world. We need to work together as a species to reverse that tide – first, by reducing our collective consumption of plastics, and second, by finding a way to remove plastics from the ocean.
Blowholes is our effort at providing the masses with a plastic alternative to one of the most globally consumed type of plastic – disposable straws. Offered in quantities for both individuals, as well as businesses – we provide a variety of different types of fully biodegradable paper straws for hot and cold beverages.
Make the switch today and help make a difference.
- Kent Lin