I was visiting Sydney Sea Life Aquarium recently and, in the children’s activity area, noticed signs urging kids to become plastic warriors by pledging to reduce their families’ use of plastic packaging in order to protect the ocean. I’m sure I've seen similar signs in aquariums and museums near me, but this time it struck me. Are we really putting the responsibility on our kids to curb the nightmare of plastics pollution in our oceans? And they’re supposed to do this by advocating to their parents kid by kid to use less plastic packaging until some small impact is made? Suddenly, the world seemed upside down.
You may have heard of the congregation of plastic particles and plastic debris in the oceans, which concentrates especially in areas called gyres, most notably in the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, which is located midway between Hawaii and California. Size estimates of the area vary, but some reports note that it is twice the size of Texas, while others peg it as much bigger, even nearly the size of Africa. The problem is not only that these plastic garbage patches are impossible or nearly impossible to clean up, but, more importantly, the plastics kill and otherwise harm numerous species of marine life, from sea turtles to albatrosses to plankton. See, e.g., National Geographic Eduction, "Encylcopedic Entry: Great Pacific Garbage Patch"; Alan Weisman, "Polymers Are Forever," Orion Magazine(May/June 2007). And not only do the plastics themselves harm the animals, for example, by blocking the digestive tracks of birds and turtles, but the plastics also concentrate poisons like PCBs, thus introducing large amounts of such poisons into the bodies of the animals that ingest them. To make matters worse, such plastics take at least centuries to decompose, especially in the ocean where the process is slowed. See, e.g., Grant A. Harse, "Plastic, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and International Misfires at a Cure," 29 UCLA J. Envtl. L. & Pol'y 331, 335 (2011).
Meanwhile, it appears that the United States' and other countries' attempts to address this problem are extremely incremental. There are statutes and treaties aimed at stopping ocean dumping, but these laws do nothing to address the fact that a 80% of marine debris is estimated to come from land-based sources. Id. at 332, 335.
It has seemed quite clear to me since I first read the Orion article referenced above that what we really need are stringent controls on the use of plastics for packaging and other purposes. However, although I may have missed it, I haven't heard of any comprehensive movement in that direction. I applaud the efforts of local governments, states, and countries that have decided to require recycling of plastic bags, to ban them, or to ban the use of Styrafoam food containers, but these efforts alone are not going to halt the large-scale contamination of our oceans. And although, like most parents, I think my four year-old is capable of great things, it's not fair to put the burden of fixing this problem on our children and future generations. Our generation and our parents' generation created it, and we need to fix it (or--if that is not possible--at least significantly rein it in).
By the way, the best thing at the Sydney aquarium was the dugong.