Pacific of Plastic

Joseph Kukral, Op/Ed Editor

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A lesson that humanity repeatedly fails to learn is the tragedy of the commons.  An important concept in social science, it describes a situation where a public resource is exploited by a group of individuals acting in their self-interest. Such behavior occurs because the resource is collectively owned. If the resource were owned by a single individual or entity, one could expect the resource to be carefully guarded as its owner scrupulously acts to ensure the protection of its value. When originally postulated by economist William Foster Lloyd in an essay written in 1883, the tragedy of the commons described exploitation of common land by unregulated grazing. The importance of this theory weighs more heavily now than ever before. Today, the public resource in question is not common land, but rather our oceans, which have come under virulent attack in the last half century.

For many, it is hard to imagine what type of human behavior could possibly damage such vast expanses of water. Sadly, these same individuals are likely to buy bottled water, not for a moment considering whether there are any additional consequences beside the convenience of water held in a plastic container. And that is precisely the disease blighting our oceans: an island of plastic twice the size of Texas.

Since its discovery by Charles Moore in 1997, the plastic island has grown exponentially in size and density. During the return from his sailing trip in Hawaii, Moore was shocked to discover the plastic expanse, which behooved him to establish the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Ever since, the foundation has been dedicated to the careful study and monitoring of the ocean plastic heap.

Originally thought to be a large pool of small plastic fragments, the island is increasingly becoming comprised of larger pieces of plastic debris. Some of the foundation researchers believe much of this larger debris is a result of Japan’s tsunami several years back, which jettisoned thousands of pounds of plastic into the Pacific Ocean. The problem that persists, however, is the amount of time plastic takes to decompose. Even when plastic does break down, it remains intact as microscopic particles. These particles then find their way into the diets of fish and other important organisms, such as phytoplankton.

Essentially, plastic is destroying the ecosystems of our oceans.  As the smallest organisms consume more plastic, it guarantees that organisms higher up on the food chain will be affected as well.  Algalita researchers assert that once ingested, the plastic releases toxins which all but ensure the illnesses and deaths of numerous wildlife. Endangered animals, such as turtles, are dying from eating plastic bags.  Albatrosses are perishing in great numbers as they continue to mistake cigarette lighters and bottle caps for food. Michael Williams, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, regretfully noted that during his study of fur seals between 1998 and 2006, more than 800 young male seals were identified with plastic entangling their bodies. Many times, his research team would attempt to free the seals binded and constricted by plastic, but would ultimately fail as he realized the plastic would cut too deeply into the seal’s flesh if they tried to cut it loose.

Without further enumeration, it should be plainly evident that plastic can even endanger people. Many commercial fishermen are hauling in fish tainted with plastic particles. In fact, researchers from the Algalita Foundation analyzed one rainbow runner, which exhibited 84 fragments of plastic in its stomach. Not only are fish being greatly affected, but mussels are as well. Mark Browne, an ecologist at University College Dublin, studied mussels to ascertain their level of plastic ingestion and concluded that the mussels do not just have plastic in their guts, but the pieces pass through the gut’s lining and get lodged in their organs. The alarming issue this presents is two-pronged. First, if these populations become too affected, they may die off, leaving a dangerously low supply of food in their wake. Also, if people continue to consume contaminated sea life, they are sure to build up their levels of PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals. Unless one is blithely short-sighted, of which Americans have an uncanny ability, it should be absolutely apparent of what is at stake.

Hopefully, people begin to understand the implications of our dying oceans. Not only does plastic pose an immediate health hazard, but it also can eliminate an important supply of food in the long run. I cannot imagine a more integral public resource to learn this lesson from than the oceans that support the Earth’s biodiversity.