“To a sea turtle, a plastic bag suspended in the water looks an awful lot like a jellyfish floating along,” says Meghann Cant, animal welfare educator for the BC SPCA. “One wrong gulp could cost the turtle his life.” In fact, plastic bags are second only to lost or abandoned fishing gear for harming wildlife.
Sadly, sea turtles hunting down plastic bags is not just a farfetched story. Marine animals mistake our garbage for food all the time – with deadly consequences. Plastic is especially problematic. An estimated eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans each year. “That’s like dumping the contents of a garbage truck into the ocean every minute,” says Cant.
Why is plastic such a problem? “In its original form, plastic can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years,” says Cant. “It can stick around for even longer in tiny particles.” Instead of biodegrading, plastic just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Indeed, much of the plastic pollution found across the globe is tiny – less than a millimetre in size.
What does all that plastic mean for wildlife? Scientists estimate that more than half (52 per cent) of the world’s sea turtles – individuals, not species – have ingested plastic. They also predict that, unless significant action is taken, 99 per cent of all seabird species – and almost 95 per cent of all individuals – will be eating plastic by 2050. “It’s difficult to fathom, but there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050,” says Cant.
The global scale of the problem is almost unimaginable, but Cant believes there are concrete steps we can all take as individuals to make a difference locally. She suggests the following actions:
1. Participate in a shoreline cleanup
“Canada has the longest coastline in the world, as well as thousands of lakes and rivers, so virtually every Canadian lives near some sort of shoreline,” says Cant. Volunteers for the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup remove litter from rivers, streams, wetlands, marshes, parks, lakes, storm drains and beaches. To find a cleanup near you, visit shorelinecleanup.ca.
2. Wean yourself off of disposable plastics
From bags to cutlery to straws, disposable plastics have become part of our everyday lives. “Try replacing disposable items with reusable ones,” says Cant. Bring your own cloth bags when you go grocery shopping. Pack your lunch in a reusable lunch bag with reusable containers and silverware. Use refillable water bottles instead of buying bottled water. Bring your own travel mug to fill at the coffee shop. “Eventually, this will just become habit,” says Cant.
3. Boycott microbeads
Microbeads are a common ingredient in products such as body washes, facial scrubs and toothpastes. Too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants, they flow straight from our sinks out to the ocean – and into the mouths and gills of marine animals. Scientists have found microplastic in plankton, arctic sea ice, deep-sea sediments, rain and even seafood. “Although the federal government has declared microbeads a toxic substance, they have yet to be officially banned in Canada,” says Cant. “In the meantime, we can use our purchasing power to avoid products with microbeads in them.”
Although the gravity of the situation is overwhelming, Cant believes we can stay positive by focusing on our achievements. “Direct action has already made a difference,” she says. In 2018 to date, Canadians participated in 809 cleanups across the country, picking up 33,923 kilograms of litter and cleaning 987 kilometres of shoreline. “It’s within our power to stem the tide of plastic pouring into our oceans,” says Cant.