Plastic trash in the ocean is a slow oil spill

but with global reach
By Terre Dunivant

Captains David Robinson and Mark Kocina of SeaLife Conservation sailed the coast of California in late 2009, stopping in Morro Bay and other coastal cities to educate residents, City staff and Councils about plastic and ocean pollution. The evidence is shocking. People are taking action.

Damaris Hansen and the City of Morro Bay conceived this interpretive panel project to educate thousands of visitors and residents about ocean pollution prevention. The Morro Bay National Estuary Program funded a Morro Bay High School group to buy and offer free compostable takeout containers to local restaurants. Another grant will help Morro Bay’s venerable Harbor Festival keep cigarette butts and plastic trash out of our beautiful bay during the popular event.

Ruth Ann Angus, who helped research and write this panel, said she came away from the Captains’ presentation determined to see change. Shari Sullivan and Cheryl Lesinski, current and former MBNEP Outreach and Education coordinators, reviewed the panel and offered valuable suggestions.

We needed images that would tell the story, and one image in particular that would make this information matter. It took time to track down the images and secure permissions. We have access to millions of photos through our affiliation with stock sites like Dreamstime and specialty wildlife photo sites, but none had what we needed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working to prevent ocean pollution, and we found some good, high-resolution images on the NOAA website. But the plastic trash problem is still largely invisible.

That one image was especially elusive. Then Save Our Shores posted Santa Cruz photographer Terry McCormac‘s otter mother trying to pull a plastic bag off her baby. All of the photos showing animals hurt by plastics are heartbreaking, though we made a big effort to keep it non-gory. But we love our sea otters on the Central Coast, and this is the image that will make waves. Terry told me everyone asks the same question: did the sea otter mother save her pup? She did.

This project was a challenge in other ways.

Interpretive panels are usually positive and focused on things you can see, such as birds or views. Becoming educated about the tangled, burgeoning enormity of damage being done by plastics to creeks, estuaries and oceans dazed me. I thought I knew something about the issue, but when I looked deeply, it was deeply shocking.

Bad trash habits. Los Angeles River, California. Stormwater carries
trash in gutters from all over the City. What is captured by booms
is scooped up and hauled to a landfill.  Photo courtesy
Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

We are surrounded by a steady flow of plastic. Beaches in San Diego, Hawaii, Guam, and the recently pristine Galapagos are piled with it, sometimes several feet deep.

The harm to wildlife is enormous, the threat to humans obvious. Albatross chicks by the thousands die of starvation with a belly full of trash. Toxins dissolve into seawater as different plastics break down under sunlight. Smaller and smaller pieces float a foot or two below the surface, looking just like a juicy mass of plankton to sea turtles and whales. Junk food, literally.

Unfortunately, California lawmakers recently rejected a bill that would have made the state the first in the nation to ban all plastic shopping bags. Bags alone amount to 70% of the plastic circling off our Pacific coast and around all the world’s oceans. Abandoned fishing nets are a big part of the problem, but most of the plastic fouling our waters comes from disposables like bags, which might be used for 10 minutes and pollute for decades.

BP’s oil spill in the Gulf is a tragedy for all concerned. The whole Gulf of Mexico is slicked, dosed with experimental chemicals. The damage is enormous and likely to persist for decades.

Plastic trash is a slow oil spill, with far greater reach. Ten years ago the Pacific garbage patch was thought to be the size of Texas. Now it circles between the coasts of California and Japan. There’s another garbage patch orbiting the Atlantic. Yet plastic has been in use only about 70 years. It was only a century ago that cars became popular and oil use kicked into high gear.

Most people realize now that the true price of oil is much, much greater than the price at the pump. From control to extraction to refinery to product to disposal, oil threatens life on Earth. But the status quo is changing because most of us don’t want to live in a dirty, damaged world. We will reduce, reuse and recycle for our own good.

For those who need the economic motivation, oil will only get more expensive and limited as this finite resource gets scarce. Alaska, which taxes its oil wells, has a budget surplus again this year.  The great state of California, which does not tax its wells, might as well be sucking air.

Photo courtesy Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Try this: Save every piece of plastic you use for a month. Cut your use of plastic every way you can. Now save every piece for another month. I think you’ll be astonished, but don’t let it paralyze you. 

You can do something about it. When you eat out, bring your own takeout boxes. Ask the bakery to put your muffins in paper. Reuse the Ziplocs. Get creative. Do what you can. If you own a restaurant, you can have a big impact by switching to compostable containers and cutlery. Don’t get discouraged when you see for yourself how much plastic surrounds you. Keep cutting it out. Make sure your trash doesn’t get away from you. Support legislation that restricts disposable plastic products. Stay with it. Believe that we can fix this. We must.