More Plastic than Fish in the Ocean?

There will be more plastic than fish by weight in the Earth's oceans by 2050. Read that again and ponder the implications — more plastic than fish in the world's oceans by 2050 if we remain on our current course. This is from a report by the World Economic Forum published in 2016. Part of the problem are the plastic bags of the type we get daily at the grocery store and our favorite fast food outlets with our take-out orders.

Why does it matter?

Millions of sea creatures die from eating plastic that they mistake for food. They also become trapped in those plastic bands that bind together our soda cans. Then there are secondary microplastics; these are tiny bits and fibers of plastic that result from the breakdown of larger plastic debris like the macroscopic plastic pieces that make up the bulk of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that huge collection of plastic waste that is rotating in the North Pacific Gyre. (Primary microplastics are small bits manufactured as products.)

Microplastics are known to persist in the environment at high levels, particularly in the oceans, although a recent article in The Guardian reported that the highest microplastic pollution found to-date anywhere in the world has been identified in a river near Manchester, England. Animals end up eating microplastics, to no good effect, and potentially so do we when we eat seafood.

How can we help in Montgomery County?

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Montgomery County is studying the effectiveness of this law, according to Leslie Wilcox, a Watershed Outreach Planner for the County. Unfortunately, before the law was passed no baseline study was done to quantify plastic bag use or the presence of bags in the local environment. This makes it difficult to reliably quantify the effect of the law. Nonetheless, monitoring the presence of plastic bags in county streams shows some decline, based on the quantity of bags in a neighboring county where no comparable law was adopted. Surveys of residents and businesses are planned. And then, we witness the effect routinely on trips to the grocery store where we see our fellow citizens carrying reusable bags. It has to have an impact.

Montgomery County is studying the effectiveness of this law, according to Leslie Wilcox, a Watershed Outreach Planner for the County. Unfortunately, before the law was passed no baseline study was done to quantify plastic bag use or the presence of bags in the local environment. This makes it difficult to reliably quantify the effect of the law. Nonetheless, monitoring the presence of plastic bags in county streams shows some decline, based on the quantity of bags in a neighboring county where no comparable law was adopted. Surveys of residents and businesses are planned. And then, we witness the effect routinely on trips to the grocery store where we see our fellow citizens carrying reusable bags. It has to have an impact.

We could do more.

In light of the growth of the world's plastic problem, Montgomery County could ban plastic bags altogether, as has California and the nation of Kenya. Some cities in the U.S have banned them as well, e.g. Austin, Texas and Chicago, Illinois. We could follow suit. We could also do more to get rid of plastic bottles. For example, we could all invest in reusable bottles for our drinking water. We could shop more intentionally — looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we consume.

Of course, recycling our plastic waste is mandatory in Montgomery County, but not producing all the plastic in the first place would be best. What about the plastic bags that are used for produce? Why couldn't those be replaced with paper? All beverages used to be delivered in glass containers. Would that be a better alternative? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves.

Not only are plastic bags polluting the oceans to an unacceptable degree; the production and disposal of plastic generates an estimated 400 million tons of carbon dioxide a year globally, which amounts to more carbon dioxide that is emitted per annum from the United Kingdom every year. That's because plastics are made from oil, natural gas and coal, so production generates carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases.

There is every good reason to limit our production and use of plastics. We need to ask ourselves, is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch the legacy of our modern civilizations that we wish to leave to the world?

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