Plastic is bad for the environment. That’s something we all know and have grown up hearing. If we must use it, we must recycle it, or else it will stay where tossed, taking hundreds of years to decompose. But plastic has become so ubiquitous that it’s become part of any urban landscape: here are the discards of empty soda bottles and sandwich bags, there, plastic candy wrappers and fast food containers line the curb, all up and down Broadway. In the winter, bare of their leaves, we see plastic bags clinging to tree limbs and branches, daring the wind to wrest them free from their grip. Walking along the Hudson or East Rivers, discarded plastic utensils and soda bottles bob alongside the newly hatched ducklings. It’s easy to turn away or assimilate the detritus as part of the city’s landscape. But what goes into the Hudson goes into the ocean.
Today, on World Oceans Day, it’s important to stop and reflect upon our environment and how much we impinge upon it. Plastic has become so deadly to the world’s oceans that the United Nations named this year’s theme ‘Preventing plastic pollution and encouraging solutions for a healthy ocean.’ We must strive to take a serious look at our plastic usage and see how we can replace the use of plastic in our everyday lives. Why? Our oceans are in crisis, and they’re in crisis because of us.
What Caused the Decimation of the Oceans?
First, our appetite for fish has reached new peaks: sushi, sashimi, salmon, all have been touted as health food, a claim disputed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Ounce for ounce, shrimp has twice as much artery clogging cholesterol than t-bone steak. Most of the fat in fatty fish such as salmon is not the ‘good’ fat you hear about. Additionally, fish is now highly contaminated thanks to our throwaway lifestyle and modern agricultural practices. Still, marketing works, and industrial fisheries race to catch up to consumer demand.
Industrial fishing practices such as trawling indiscriminately scoop up every living creature in its path. The ‘bycatch’ are often dead by the time they are thrown back into the ocean. According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, 90 percent of global fish stocks are either depleted or fully exploited. From a Buddhist perspective, we can see how greed is implicated in the destruction of the oceans. We like the taste of fish, so without regard to its life, we eat it. The CEOs of the fishing industries and their shareholders are greedy for more money, so they catch more fish to sell us.
Commercial fishing is believed to be the No.1 cause of man-related sea turtle deaths. Thousands of sea turtles drown after getting caught in fishermen’s nets. Nets on shrimp boats alone claim as many as 150,000 sea turtles a year, and it is estimated that approximately 300,000 sea turtles lose their lives every year to the fishing industry.
Plastic Chokes the Sea of Life
Back to plastic. It’s pretty much impossible to avoid. Most of our groceries contain plastic–soda bottles, milk jugs, cereal boxes. It’s becoming more and more common for retailers to wrap fruits and vegetables in plastic. While plastic adds convenience for us, it’s ultimately harmful to other living beings. Dogs, skunks, foxes and other animals get their snouts stuck in yogurt containers–a life threatening situation if not removed.
Other animals ranging for food inadvertently eat plastic bags as they go for the food next to or inside of them. When a number of bags accumulate within the stomach of anyone, sickness and eventually death will follow. Animals in the oceans are particularly vulnerable to plastic waste, simply because there is so much of it. Americans generate 10.5 million tons of plastic waste a year but recycle only 1 or 2 % of it. An estimated 14 billion pounds of trash–most of it plastic–is dumped in the world’s oceans every year. The worst part is, these plastics don’t biodegrade, so they break up into tiny pieces that are consumed by fish and sea mammals. Plastic is killing more than 100,000 sea turtles and birds per year from ingestion and entanglement.
Think you’re not producing that must waste? Take a look at this slideshow to compare how you stack up to most families’ use of plastic. You might be surprised just how much plastic we use on a daily basis. In fact, 50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away. Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times, and we currently recover only five percent of the plastics we produce. The average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year.
How Can I Help Keep the Oceans Healthy?
While the situation may seem hopeless, it’s not. In fact, we have to do something to keep our oceans healthy. Our very lives depend upon it. First, Take the Plastics Pledge, and vow to reduce your use of plastic significantly. Second, avoid these ocean damaging products entirely:
Exfoliating Microbeads: Avoid these like the plague that they are. Because these beads are so small, they pass through filters and go right into the sea, where they are ingested by marine life. They’re small, but because they’re made of plastic, the beads never break down. Besides, who needs plastic beads to wash their face? A face cloth will do just fine. Don’t fall for marketing hype. Making money at any cost isn’t worth the cost.
Plastic Utensils: Does it really make sense to use a fork for ten minutes that will float in the ocean for hundreds of years? It makes much more sense to bring your own utensils with you. If your place of employment still uses plastic knives, forks and spoons, speak to the office manager and see if their willing to forgo the monthly hassle or reordering these disposable utensils for those that can be used again and again. This will save the company money and the planet ecological devastation.
Say no to Straws: In the U.S., we use 500 million straws a day! That is enough straw waste to wrap the circumference of the earth 2.5 times or to fill Yankee Stadium over 9 times in a year. Magnify that to envision global straw consumption and give straws the sack.
Bag it: One of the single worst malefactors in global marine pollution is plastic bags. It’s mind-boggling how destructive these are. New Yorkers use more than 10 billion single-use carry out bags every year. To make things worse, many grocers now double bag groceries, without even asking, as if one bag isn’t bad enough! Take New York City’s Zero Waste pledge and receive a free, recycled bag that folds into it’s own pouch. It’s great, convenient, and Zero Waste!
Whatever you do this World Oceans Day, remember that we are heirs of our karma. The seeds we plant today will bear fruit tomorrow, whether for good or ill. If we act for the good of our planet and other living beings, our planet with flourish and support life. This not only seems like the right choice, it is the only choice.
Happy World Oceans Day to Everyone!