Every time we use a word or a phrase, it reveals something implicit about how that thing is viewed. I know that seems a little bit abstract and like I’m just some liberal arts student looking to draw grand conclusions about the world, but bear with me. Let’s look for a moment at the phrase “throwing something away”. It implies that that thing is now launched away forever into another place and does not need to be thought or cared about. This phrase reflects a common attitude on waste disposal and implicitly gives big companies, institutions, and even cities permission to stop thinking about where their trash goes and how it affects the world around us.
When people think of the journey of their trash, many think of it all going to a dump or incinerator. But some of that trash ends up in our waterways and out into the oceans. In fact, in America in the early 20th century, dumping trash into the oceans was viewed as a common practice. “The solution to pollution is dilution” is a phrase commonly used to describe a traditional view of waste disposal. This isn’t entirely inaccurate because all things do biodegrade eventually, but the advent of widespread plastic use combined with a shift to consuming disposable products and an increased world population has caused our oceans to suffer immensely.
Prior to the invention of plastics, most consumer products were made with natural materials that could degrade in a reasonable amount of time. Dumping waste from these products into the ocean was not beneficial to most ecosystems’ health in the oceans, but the pervasiveness of plastics that we are seeing now is unprecedented. It is estimated that there is 268,940 tons of plastic in the ocean today that is ever growing. Plastic particles can be found in absurd abundance in every shape and size from large pieces to particles at the molecular level. There are so many ways that these plastic particles affect ocean ecosystems, many of which we don’t understand. For example, sometimes plastic particles look like prey, causing organisms to ingest them and often die from starvation. Plastic that is broken down to the molecular level can even behave like estrogen and chemically affect organisms in the ocean. The vast expanse of issues associated with this massive amount of plastic is not yet fully known, but it is sure to create changes in our oceans.
Because of the way the ocean currents work, there are 5 major places on Earth that these plastics are congregated and they are called gyres. This is only one of the many paths that trash can take once it is “thrown out” of our lives into a trashcan. So, next time you throw something away you, may want to think for a minute where this piece of trash is really going and if there is a better way for it to be disposed of.
If you are looking to learn more about plastics in our oceans check out the documentary Plastic Paradise” The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.