Many have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of all the trash we throw onto the streets, which break down into smaller and smaller pieces that never go away. However, it doesn’t seem to quite register in our minds that there is a literal collection of trash floating in our ocean. It’s roughly the size of Texas, and it is not going away any time soon. According to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it would cost between $122 million and $489 million to clean up the debris and that’s not even counting the fact that not all debris items can be scooped up with a net.
The dangers of pollution in our ocean
Oftentimes, animal species mistake plastic waste for an edible food source, which causes blockages in their digestive system. They also get entangled in discarded fishing nets, lines, lures, and the plastic bags that fly away from daily human activities. While these problems may seem far away from us because our island is a so-called paradise, endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals and the honu (green sea turtle) are among nearly 300 species that eat and get caught in plastic litter. If we truly want our island to be a paradise, we must take action so that we can treat our ocean as a home for thousands of species — and not as the world’s trash can. While cleaning up existing ocean debris is certainly important, the majority of our efforts should be focused on preventing the problem in the first place.
Where does marine debris come from?
Land-based items accounts for 49% of all marine debris. One of the most common ways that trash travels from land to water is through storm drains. Small pieces of trash that we casually toss onto the streets are often washed into storm drains during rain storms and are then deposited into the sea. Industrial and urban areas are all too often sites that produce marine debris and poorly managed factories often dump waste into waters. Beachgoers and picnikers are also part of the problem. While one bottle cap or a cup may not seem so bad, these items accumulate quickly and accumulate in our ocean. So really, the simplest and most effective way to tackle marine debris is to throw away your trash into the receptacle can or don’t leave it behind.
As part of my research, I was able to talk to Michael Loftin of 808 cleanups, an environmental nonprofit organization committed to restoring Hawaii’s natural environment by empowering volunteers through weekly cleanups. The organization seeks to raise awareness about ocean pollution by showing volunteers the extent to which it affects the environment and where the debris originates from. For example, the reason why we have so many nets and rope as debris in our oceans and beaches is due in large part to the commercial fishing industry.
However, while cleaning up the present ocean debris is extremely critical, we need to remember that preventative methods are equally as important. The most effective way to prevent ocean debris is by passing legislation. One viable method is to reduce our use of single-use plastics, which are disposables such as plastic bags that are used once and then discarded. On July 17, 2017, the Honolulu City Council unanimously voted to pass Oahu’s new plastic bag ban last week. The ban, which will go into effect by July 2018, will charge 15 cents for all plastic checkout bags. By 2020, all plastic bags will be banned, with the exception of those used for produce and restaurant food. However, the new ban still has loopholes. The majority of the plastic bags found on beaches and in parks are actually produce bags, which are not included in the ban. According to Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign, a survey of Ala Moana Beach found that 63% of plastic bags left behind are take-out food bags. Thus, our ban on plastic bags should be extended to produce and take-out food bags at least by 2020.
For the sake of our planet, we must focus on prevention as much as we do in cleaning up the resulting debris in our oceans. We need to stop the problem from occurring, and that can start by simply learning more about debris and participating at cleanups in your local community. As Michael Loftin from 808 Cleanups put it: “Within your own ohana, you’re going to be the greatest influence.”