“There’s A Great Future in Plastics…”

A plastic water bottle on the beach of a remote island in Indonesia. © Morrison Mast

A plastic water bottle on the beach of a remote island in Indonesia. © Morrison Mast

By Roz Cohen

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you—just one word.

Ben: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes, I will.

When Walter Brooke, as Mr. McGuire, spoke those words to Dustin Hoffman in his legendary role as Benjamin Braddock in the classic film The Graduate, audiences would not have known just how enduring the future of plastics would be. Quite likely, the very same plastics discarded in 1967, the year The Graduate took moviegoers by storm, still persist in landfills and in the ocean today. In fact, plastics now make up 60 to 80 percent of all marine debris—a percentage increasing at an alarming rate—with dire consequences for marine wildlife, including sea turtles.

Whether you live far inland or near the coasts, your actions have an impact on marine pollution. About 80 percent of marine debris, including plastics, comes from land-based sources such as landfills, industrial facilities, recreational activities, and sewage and storm runoff. These wastes can be carried great distances to the coasts and oceans by rivers, storm drains, and winds.

The other 20 percent of marine debris comes from merchant and passenger ships; offshore oil and gas platforms; fish farming operations; and other recreational, commercial, and military craft.

Plastics are popular because they are strong, durable, lightweight, and inexpensive. Unfortunately, these same characteristics also make plastics a danger to the environment, as they are persistent and easily carried on winds and currents. Aside from the direct physical impacts of plastic debris, the production of plastics, which are petroleum based, is also resource intensive and may contribute to climate change.

Sea turtles and other marine species are affected by plastic debris. The impacts of plastics on sea turtles fall into two main categories: entanglement and ingestion. Sea turtles entangled in plastic straps, ropes, lines, and nets can become trapped beneath the ocean surface and drown or may suffer injury or interference with their regular behaviors.

Ingestion of plastic fragments is also a real risk for sea turtles. Evidence suggests that turtles—especially young ones—feed indiscriminately, and plastic pieces often collect with passive drifting food sources. When ingested, some small plastic pieces can pass through the gut, but larger pieces completely block the digestive passages, and sharp-edged fragments cause internal injuries and infections. Plastic particles can also accumulate in the gut, where they suppress hunger and may lead to death. An informal survey of professionals studying sea turtle stranding shows that the threats to sea turtles from plastic debris vary considerably around the world. More systematic studies are needed to explain these differences and to explore the possible ecosystem wide effects of marine plastic debris. Despite some noteworthy efforts to reduce marine pollution (see “Leatherbacks—Going Faster Than You Think” on pages 30–31), the problem is growing. Fortunately, we, as individuals, can have a profound, positive effect by taking simple steps to reduce, recycle, and clean up:

• Reduce. Decrease your consumption of single-use, disposable plastic products. Bring your own reusable bags to the store, use refillable water bottles instead of single-use bottles and containers, and avoid products that use excessive packaging.

• Recycle. It is nearly impossible to avoid plastic altogether. When you do use plastic, be sure to recycle it. If you don’t have a recycling program in your town, school, or workplace, request one! The demand for recyclable PET (polyethylene terephthalate, made from natural gas and petroleum) plastic is so high and the supply so low that recyclers are looking everywhere for new sources.

• Clean up. The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup (www.coastalcleanup.org) is one successful effort in which volunteers around the world collect trash from local coasts and waterways.