Protecting Ocean Ecosystems
Declare Independence from Plastic Waste this Fourth of July
A picnic at the beach with a view of the fireworks sounds like the ideal Fourth of July to me. Thousands of people agree and flock to the coasts on Independence Day, eager to enjoy the sun and the sea. But as beaches fill up with celebrating crowds, they also become covered in single-use plastics and other trash that is far too often left behind after the fireworks fade. Unfortunately, a great day for our country becomes a very bad one for the health of our shorelines, oceans, and marine wildlife.
Holiday litter contributes to a big plastic problem
On busy beach days like the Fourth of July, waste can easily blow out of overflowing trashcans or off the sand and into the sea. Food wrappers, plastic straws, cigarette butts, metal cans, and plastic beverage bottles can be found strewn across beaches, including those in New England, in much larger quantities than usual on and after the holiday. As a result, July 5th has become known as the dirtiest day of the year on U.S. beaches.
Scientists have estimated that about 8 million metric tons of plastic make its way into the sea annually. That’s equal to a full garbage truck of plastic dumped into the ocean every minute. By 2050, it is predicted there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish. Here in New England, during the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers removed 169,014 pounds of trash composed of 1.7 million individual pieces of waste from our beaches in just one day.
Plastic in the ocean has a lasting impact
Plastic waste on the beach and in the ocean is extremely damaging to marine life as animals often become entangled in plastic or ingest pieces of plastic that they have mistaken for food. In various studies, researchers have observed plastic in 92 species of fish as well as 233 marine species, including 59 percent of seabirds and whales, 36 percent of seals, and 100 percent of turtle species. These animals often starve when they fill up on plastics that they cannot digest.
One of the main problems with plastic waste is that it never truly decomposes in the ocean; it only breaks down into miniscule pieces called microplastics. These microplastics make their way into the marine food chain and eventually onto our plates. Alarmingly, one study found plastic in 25 percent of fish sampled at seafood markets worldwide.
Plastic contamination is especially concerning in shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels – common New England favorites. These animals feed by filtering small particles out of the water, so microplastics settle in their digestive systems. Small amounts of plastic have been found in New England oysters, about 8 to 10 pieces per animal. This poses a danger to our health because we eat those digestive systems when we enjoy a whole oyster or clam. While scientists say these shellfish are safe to eat now, that could change as plastic debris in the ocean continues to increase.
Help protect the ocean by reducing your plastic use
While the problem of plastics in the ocean may seem overwhelming, everyone can be a part of the solution. So, as we hit the beaches this Fourth of July, let’s give New England’s fish and other marine animals something to celebrate: clean coastlines and seas.
Please carry your waste off the beach and into trash or recycling receptacles away from the water. Or, even better, try to make efforts to reduce your waste altogether: reusable bags, tupperwares, utensils, and water bottles will make your picnic no less delicious but much more sustainable. And if you happen to head to the beach on the July 5th, you can do your part by picking up trash that was left behind.
There is no better way to celebrate our nation than by both enjoying and protecting its natural resources – especially our coastlines and marine ecosystems.
Lawrie is an Ocean Conservation Intern at CLF.