Last week, the body of a pregnant sperm whale was discovered washed up on the shore of Sardinia, Italy. A group called SeaMe was responsible for observing the carcass and revealed that the stomach of the whale contained “garbage bags ... fishing nets, lines, tubes, the bag of a washing machine liquid still identifiable, with brand and barcode ... and other objects no longer identifiable” (1). In total, the whale’s stomach held 22 kilograms (or around 49 pounds) of plastic.
Following this event, Italy’s Minister of the Environment, Sergio Costa, wrote a Facebook post, expressing, “Are there still people who say these are not important problems? For me they are, and they are priorities” (1). I believe Costa is right. The waste in our oceans is a serious issue and should be a priority. I personally think that, at times, people forget about this issue because it can be an “out of sight, out of mind” type of situation. Some people may believe that it doesn’t affect our daily lives. We are not really confronted face-to-face with the effects of it, and so the value and urgency of this issue is not fully understood. However, when something like this happens, where we discover a whale filled with garbage and plastic, that makes the significance of this issue undeniable.
According to scientists from 5 Gyres, a nonprofit advocacy group, the ocean is estimated to contain 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste (2). While 269,000 tons of that debris stays on the ocean surface, four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer have found their way to the deep sea (3).
This debris is rising to be one of the top killers of ocean life around the world. Just from the bodies that are found, 100,000 aquatic creatures are estimated to die annually due to the plastic in the oceans (3). Plastic is killing thousands of seabirds, sea turtles, whales and many other species.
Every single organism in the ocean has an important role in its ecosystem, and some even have larger roles than others. For example, sea turtles are considered to be a keystone species, which is an organism that contributes greatly to an entire ecosystem. Without them, the ecosystem would be vastly different or even cease to exist (4).
Some of a sea turtle's functions include grazing seagrass (which promotes the growth of healthy seagrass and corals), keeping some species from out-competing others such as sponges and jellyfish; transporting nutrients; and other noteworthy qualities (5). The sea turtles are vital to the health of the ocean ecosystem, and they are dwindling in numbers; their biggest threat is the plastic and garbage that we are putting in the oceans, intentionally or unintentionally. And this is just one specific example of the important marine life being harmed by our ocean waste and plastic levels; there are thousands more that can be listed. Without these creatures, our oceans will eventually die.
As for a solution to this problem, the idea of cleaning out ALL plastic and garbage in the ocean is seemingly infeasible; there has to be more time and effort put in to reach this goal. However, prevention is something that everyone in our society can take part in. Some ways to reduce our plastic pollution include reducing our single-use plastics, such as not using plastic straws, bags, water bottles, etc. We can also recycle properly, which will reduce the rate of new plastic items being used. Furthermore, we can take a more active role in our free time and volunteer at beach cleanups, support bans of plastic use, and spread awareness of this issue to our family, friends and peers. I believe that educating others and spreading awareness will allow us to take a step forward in this movement and pave the way to cleaner oceans that generations ahead will be able to enjoy.