There’s an island in the Pacific Ocean that’s larger than Texas and California combined--but you’ve probably never heard of it. That’s because it’s not a land mass, it’s a trash mass. It’s called the South Pacific Gyre, and it’s one of five current systems that converge throughout the earth’s oceans.
Because of the plastic in the ocean that’s built up over the last decades, the gyres now house tons of trash in slowly rotating islands. These masses are found in the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. The one in the South Pacific is estimated to hold nearly 2 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing in at a staggering 80,000 metric tons.
The Problem With All The Plastic In The Ocean
The estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic that end up in the ocean each year cause so many problems it’s hard to list them all.
Sea turtles, for example, are particularly vulnerable to plastic in the ocean. They swallow straws and suffocate to death and or get plastic forks stuck in their noses.
It’s not just sea turtles; whales, dolphins, seals, and other animals can get become entangled in larger pieces of trash, such as discarded nets. If they’re not trapped and drowned by the trash, they can become exhausted by it or become infected because of it.
Plastic in the ocean also poses a risk to us. Plastic doesn’t decompose, but it does break down into tiny pieces called microplastics, which are consumed by animals at all points in the food cycle.
Because of the toxins, plastics are made from and the toxins they absorb, this means that the marine ecosystems we rely on for ocean health and food are compromised, putting our health at risk. We’re already familiar with warnings about eating certain seafood; these warnings could expand as plastic continues to proliferate in the ocean.
What Can We Do?
Much of the plastic in the ocean comes from offshore platforms and intentional garbage dumping by other countries. However, there’s still something we can do as consumers to check the spread of plastic in the ocean. Here are our top twelve tips for making small changes that add up to big changes!
1. Skip The Straws
All it takes is watching one video of a straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose, and you’ll never want to use a straw again. While plastic straws make up a very tiny percentage of the trash in the ocean, they cause lots of harm to an already endangered species.
You can skip the straw altogether in favor of simply sipping your beverage, or bring a reusable stainless steel or glass straw with you.
2. Use A Refillable Water Bottle
The United States might be the world leader when it comes to adding trash to the ocean, but it is the leader when it comes to plastic water bottles. Plastic bottles, however, are one of the most common pieces of trash being pulled from the ocean right now.
While corporations like Coca-Cola are pledging to reduce their use of non-recycled plastic bottles, you can help by switching from purchasing plastic water bottles to using a refillable water bottle.
3. Say No To Plastic Baggies
It’s laudable to pack your lunch or your child’s lunch, but if you’re packing it in plastic baggies, you could be adding to the plastic in the ocean. Estimates from the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York, for example, state that a single student can create up to 90 pounds of garbage each year.
The good news? There are tons of great alternatives to plastic sandwich bags that are just as convenient. Try a bento box, made in kid sizes and adult sizes, that allow you to package a whole lunch in a tightly sealed container.
You can also use individual stainless steel containers, which are healthier than plastic because they don’t leach potentially harmful chemicals into your food or your kids’ food.
4. Buy In Bulk
Buying in bulk can save you money, but it can also save the ocean from yet another piece of plastic. Depending on where you live, buying in bulk isn’t readily available, but it often is.
Sometimes you’re required by the store’s policy to use the provided plastic containers, but often you can bring your own glass jars or other reusable containers. Just talk to a store employee first!
5. Bring Your Own Silverware
Plastic forks, knives, and spoons fill landfills and our oceans, but they’re another easy fix--instead of using them, use your own silverware! It might mean doing the dishes at home more often, or it might mean bringing your own bamboo or stainless steel silverware with you when you eat out.
Either way, it’s a win for you and the ocean!
6. Use Bar Soap
You probably don’t think about bar soap unless you’re visiting your grandparents and using their Dial soap, but bar soap (as long as it’s packaged in paper, of course) is just as good at cleaning you as the body wash you’re used to using--and it sends a lot less plastic into the ocean!
You can use bar soap like castile soap for everything from the dishes to laundry, and check out shampoo bars for great alternatives to shampoo bottles!
7. Ask For Paper, Not Plastic
Visiting the grocery store? Bring your own bags! Not only can you bring your own reusable bags to replace plastic grocery bags, but you can also bring your own smaller bags for produce or simply leave your produce unbagged.
Forgot your reusable bags at home? Ask for paper bags at checkout instead of plastic.
8. Have A Waste-Free Period
Tampons and pads have plastic wrapping that you can eliminate by choosing organic cotton and paper-only products. Even better? Opt for a menstrual cup, a medical-grade silicone cup that’s inserted into the vaginal canal.
It’s far more effective at preventing leaks, plus it only needs to be emptied twice a day. Think about all the money you’ll save--and the plastic you’ll prevent from making its way to the ocean!
9. Be Aware Of The Packaging
One of the best things you can do to keep plastic out of the ocean is to become aware of how much plastic you use on a daily basis. When you’re purchasing snacks at the grocery store, for example, are you purchasing individually plastic-wrapped snacks or are you purchasing snacks in bulk?
Even better, are you selecting snacks like apples and bananas that don’t require any packaging--and are healthier, to boot?
You can also start prioritizing paper and glass packaging over plastic. Purchase deli meat and cheese at the deli counter and have it wrapped in plastic. You can do the same with meat by purchasing it at the meat counter or visiting your local butcher.
Choose yogurt and milk in glass jars or paper cartons instead of plastic jugs and choose eggs in paper cartons, not styrofoam. And try making granola, protein bars, muffins, and other snacks instead of relying on individually packaged items!
10. Watch Out For Microplastics In Your Care Products
You already know that many of your favorite personal care products come in plastic bottles--but do they also have plastic in them? They might! Many microbeads and other tiny plastic particles are included in face washes and other products as exfoliants or to enhance the feel or texture of the product.
Look for words like “polypropylene” and “polyethylene” on the ingredient list and avoid those products.
You’ve probably heard the term “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” since grade school, but it’s a great motto for anyone who wants to change their lifestyle to limit plastic. If your neighborhood doesn’t already have a recycling program, you can research the local recycling plant in the area to find out when you can drop off your recyclables yourself.
It’s fun to watch how much trash you can reduce when you start recycling!
12. Use A Bamboo Toothbrush
The experts recommend replacing your toothbrush every three months, but that’s four toothbrushes a year that you’re throwing away! Instead of a plastic toothbrush, try a bamboo toothbrush.
They’re inexpensive, and they degrade naturally--without adding more plastic to the ocean. You can even find some with bristles made from activated charcoal to help naturally whiten your teeth!
The plastic in the ocean can seem like an overwhelming problem--and it is. Fortunately, you’re not the only person interested in a solution, and by doing your part, you and thousands of others can make a difference for our ocean and our world!