What You Can't See

What You Can't See

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 23:16

East Hampton Town has led the way in passing ordinances against the intentional release of helium-filled party balloons. Earlier, East Hampton Village imposed a strict new rule on the distribution of plastic straws. 

As of Jan. 1, 2020, Styrofoam food and drink containers will be banned countywide, consolidating several local laws.

A 5-cent fee on thin plastic shopping bags has resulted in an estimated 1.1 billion fewer being handed out in stores in a little over a year in Suffolk.

These are all good, but just a start.

In getting the bans onto the books, officials were rightly taking aim at the most visible forms of plastic pollution. No one likes to see a sad cluster of half-deflated Mylar balloons and ribbon washing along the ocean shoreline. But large and obvious forms of petroleum-based litter is only part of the problem, especially in the world’s oceans.

At least eight million tons of plastic end up in the marine environment each year, according to researchers. No part of the ocean is immune; contamination reaches even the deepest submarine trenches. 

Pathways into the seas include street runoff, sewer overflow, improper trash disposal, and illegal dumping. On the high seas, plastic comes for the most part from the fishing industry, shipping, and aquaculture. A plastic bag floating along eventually breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, with the minute particles drifting ever lower over time, eventually stopping their downward movement when there is nowhere else to go.

A recent study of shrimplike amphipods from six of these deep places found that most had plastic fibers and other particles within their digestive systems. In the deepest spot of all — the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific — there were textile fibers in every single one of the amphipods tested. 

But according to scientists, the deep-sea fibers are not just from bags, straws, or party balloons but rather most are from clothing. Much of the blue, black, red, and purple particles found in the deep-sea creatures’ guts came from ordinary day-to-day laundry washing. 

From tiny amphipods and other kinds of zooplankton, plastics make their way up the marine food chain ending in crustaceans, finfish, birds, and even whales. About two-thirds of fish sampled in a North Atlantic study were found to have consumed plastics, either directly or after preying on other marine life.

The effects of consumption of seafood containing plastics are not well understood, but are potentially very bad. Chemicals used in making synthetic textiles and other materials can cause developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders in both wildlife and humans. Beyond local product bans, solutions will have to include high-level government steps to rethink the entire life cycle of plastics. 

The infamous ocean garbage patches that have drawn attention in recent years, for example, are mostly made up of small particles not visible to the naked eye. One researcher described them as a “peppery soup” of tiny fragments floating around. Though relatively few are the sort that dramatically entangles marine life, in the open ocean plastic may do the most harm to wildlife from within.

Beach cleanups really do help. Especially under the effect of sunlight, plastics break into smaller and smaller pieces, then find their way into unsuspecting animals, including humans. Using less, thanks to bag and straw bans, recycling, and favoring natural fabrics instead of synthetics all help. 

Zero-waste is impossible in this modern world, but consumers can make informed choices about how much plastic they use every day. As seen in the deep-sea trenches, every little bit does make a difference.

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May 31, 2019 - 22:13
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