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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Summertime - Beaches, Ocean And Trash

As the nation begins to cram in its end of summer vacationing, many Americans head to the beach, particularly those on the ocean. Little do they see the increasing reality: the oceans are choking on garbage, particularly plastic waste.

According to a recent report, experts estimate that over eight million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans each year, and that amount is likely to increase dramatically over the next decade unless nations act.

The amount of plastics waste found in the ocean is the equivalent of “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.” Experts estimate that by 2025, the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans would double, or the equivalent of 10 bags per foot of coastline.

While the United States is not the world’s worst offender – that distinction goes to China – the U.S. generates an estimated 110,000 metric tons of marine debris a year.

Plastics have been spotted in the oceans since the 1970s. Since then, masses of plastic waste have been observed floating where ocean currents come together and plastics can be found on the world’s most remote beaches and in arctic sea ice.

Exposed to saltwater and sun, coupled with the effects of wave action, the plastics break up into tiny pieces that can become coated with toxic substances like PCBs and other pollutants.

Research into the marine food chain suggests that fish and other organisms consume the bite-size particles and may reabsorb the toxic substances. Those fish are eaten by other fish, and by people. It has been estimated that roughly 20 percent of small fish have plastic in their bellies.

Cleaning up the plastic once it is in the oceans is impractical; only a portion of it floats, while most disappears, and what does not wash ashore settles to the bottom. For example, plastic beverage bottles, immediately sink. Studies suggest the seafloor--typically 2½ to 3¾ miles down--may hold far more than surface waters.

So what can be done? Some researchers are looking into trying to collect much of the floating plastics. For example, nonprofit tech developer The Ocean Cleanup wants to use ocean currents to corral plastics into an array of anchored booms to concentrate and remove them.

Easier than trying to recover these practically irretrievable bits of broken-down plastic is keeping plastic stuff out of the water in the first place. In 2013, volunteers with the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup collected more than 12.3 million pounds of beach trash around the globe, including more than 940,000 plastic bottles.

Better yet, the nation should curb plastic use altogether. The average American throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year. Cutting plastic bag use can dramatically reduce waste. After San Jose, California banned plastic bags in 2012, plastic bag litter dropped by almost 90 percent; it fell by 60 per¬cent in creeks and rivers.

And San Jose is not alone: San Francisco passed a ban in 2007. A similar law took effect across California this summer. In addition to California, a de facto statewide ban exists in Hawaii as all of the most populous counties in the state prohibit non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout, as well as paper bags containing less than 40 percent recycled material. Other states, including Delaware, Maine, and North Carolina have also passed laws governing plastic bags.

In addition to the benefits to reducing the amount of garbage in the oceans, plastic bags aren’t biodegradable, and less than one percent of plastic bags are recycled. Even when they are, it costs more than producing a new one.

One staff member from San Francisco's Department of the Environment, commented, “There's harsh economics behind bag recycling: It costs $4,000 to process and recycle one ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32.” It is clear that recycling plastic bags makes little economic sense, banning them is best.

New York State should do its part too – by banning plastic bags. The ocean views will be that much better.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.  

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