The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in recent weeks has had search teams from around the globe out looking for the already infamous and historical plane. Relatives of the plane’s passengers as well as governments and the media have kept this news item in the forefront of our minds as onlookers from all over wait and wonder what happened to all those people, and why there is not yet one sign of the metal that surely must be somewhere in the Indian Ocean, according to reliable and official data.
The search for MH370 has not, as we said, turned up a hint of the plane in question, but it has turned up a whole lot else. One day there was debris in this location, the next day another. Governments and fishermen kept spotting square kilometers of floating items concurrent with each other in small enough areas to make the world think the mystery had been solved. It has turned out each time, however, to be a false alarm. It is not debris from the plane being spotted, but ocean debris, an issue environmentalists and marine biologists alike have been trying to impress upon us for a long time.
There are five ocean “gyres” - or massive whirlpools in the world’s oceans - which trap garbage within them as they rotate, alternately containing and spitting out bits of debris left by humans over many, many years. Unfortunately the speed at which we are littering has increased, due likely both to population increases and the increased volume of items of consumer packaging we now have. The gyres are in the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic and the Pacific (the latter two each having a North and South gyre). The areas of flotsam which stay within the same massive water boundaries year after year grow bigger, and are known as 'garbage patches'.
Once per year the Ocean Conservancy has an annual “International Coastal Cleanup.” This takes place in the fall, when volunteers clean coastlines around the world over a 24 hour period. What they find, and where, makes up the only comprehensive picture of what litters the world’s waterways and coasts. Scientists estimate that if no one ever littered again and not one more item of garbage got into our rivers or oceans, the world’s waters would still have these garbage patches for hundreds of years to come. The following are the items humans most often throw into the water or leave lying around on beaches. Remember that these shocking figures apply to the items found over just a one-day clean up period by the Ocean Conservancy.
10 Paper Bags: 298,332
Often plasticized for longevity and reuse, paper bags are no longer always made of just paper, and therefore they're not biodegradable in the short - or perhaps even medium -term. Used for gift-giving and by stores to hold shoppers’ goods, these bags exist in almost every size and color imaginable. Larger chain stores such as Old Navy or Macy’s imprint their brand names on bags for advertising, but a variety of plain bags are made and are easily transferable from store to store. We exchange items with friends and family using these quite useful storage items, but when we're done with them, where do they go? Not every country has a recycling program and within those that do, not every person is conscientious enough to stick the Reduce Reuse Recycle mantra - meaning a school of fish might get trapped by these people's long-forgotten purchases.
9 Beverage Cans: 339,875
Humans love their ice-cold beverages: beer, colas, flavored sodas and even carbonated fruit juices. In tropical countries one might find mango and coconut drinks in cans, while around the globe people drink the standard products recognizable to most of us like Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, 7-Up, iced teas, lemonade, orange Crush, diet drinks… We travel to the beach with these, bring drinks onto boats, ferries and anywhere else we go. Cans are easily portable and do not break, which is good for the consumer but bad news for sea life. These cans inundate the world’s seas, rivers and oceans. If garbage bins at the public beach are full (or there aren't any), bring those cans back home and dispose of them as best you 'can'.
8 Glass Beverage Bottles: 521,730
Though breakable these glass beverage containers are still popular. They keep drinks cooler just a little bit longer, and in many countries the machines to make bottles have been around so long it may be cheaper to keep making bottles rather than spring for more modern, can-making machines. Metal is also very expensive to purchase, perhaps contributing further to more bottles being found in oceans around the world. Whatever the reason, these drink containers are No. 8 on the list of items most littering waters around the world: The message in these bottles? Stop throwing them out like this.
7 Straws/Stirrers: 611,048
Plastic “sticks” or straws and stirrers come in at No.7. When we’re drinking from our cans and bottles many of us like straws, especially when lying down on the beach or on a cruise ship. The angle of a “bendie” straw is much more conducive to drinking while reclining, and, let’s face it — in some cultures we've gotten so used to ease and comfort we do not even consider foregoing a small thing such as a straw in favor of the environment. “Why should we?” we think to ourselves, “We do our part.” Well if everyone truly did their part, the problem would not exist and you would not be reading this article. So perhaps we ought to think twice about purchasing that $2, 50-pack of straws next time.
6 Cups/Plates/Cutlery: 692,767
Food, drinks and the paraphernalia that goes with them are found in picnics by the lake or by the beach, or even a mezze (huge, outdoor afternoon luncheon of several courses) by a river in the Middle East. Actually, at most mezzes one would be served on crockery; this may not be convenient for the beach, but there are many reusable, hard-plastic sets available for outdoor dining these days. If we wanted to eradicate plastic plates, cups and so on, fast-food chains would be the only places to make this truly difficult. For personal outdoor consumption, consider buying a new, inexpensive and brightly-colored set you can use over and over again instead of the disposable stuff. To be really environmental, scrub with sand immediately after use and rinse in the ocean. This may not sound hygienic by modern standards, but it won’t kill you, whereas your plastic items do kill sea life.
5 Caps/Lids: 958,893
All those bottles we drink from come with caps or lids, as do small food containers. Kids find bottle-caps on beaches and use them to decorate sandcastles or make the outlines of roadways, but those are among the few good uses for these tiny items which can literally choke larger fish, birds and seals. Marine life does not need these plastic disks found everywhere, evident by this item coming in at No. 5. Start a new collection; take these items home, or send them to school with your kids for arts and crafts. If nothing else, we should dispose of them properly.
4 Plastic Bags: 1,019,902
No laughing matter, these extremely common and much-used bags from grocery stores, street vendors, pharmacies and elsewhere are actually a choking matter for marine life and birds. They get wrapped around coral, preventing oxygen in the water from getting to the living organisms beneath, or they get swallowed by a larger, more active organism such as a large fish, seal or shark. Just as we tell our children to be careful with these dangerous, disposable items, so should we too. We can do our bit by reusing plastic bags until they can be reused no longer, then recycle where possible, or bundle up tightly and throw out with landfill garbage where recycling facilities do not exist.
3 Plastic Beverage Bottles: 1,065,171
The familiarity of the bottle shape with the convenience of plastic…just one more way to present beverages to consumers. What more can we say about these formerly drink-filled containers? They float or sink, and as they are broken up by surf and rock become softer, more easily swallowed plastic, also causing choking in marine animals such as seals. Scientists think the material in plastic containers of all types leaches into the water around it, too, poisoning the surrounding water with carcinogenic toxins.
2 Food Wrappers & Containers: 1,140,222
Candy wrappers, the wrapping from chips, chocolate bars, Twinkies, saran or plastic wrap from your sandwiches. Foam containers you got at take-out, the paper from around that Big Mac, yogurt cups, applesauce jars… if you can think of it, it’s out there in the world’s waters. If everyone started using Tupperware (and took these home, for surely some Tupperware also makes its way into the world’s oceans and seas), perhaps we could get rid of fast-food altogether, though likely this is an ideal. Still, it is easy enough to wrap one’s wrappers to go and if we did, we'd remove the second biggest source of pollution from the world's oceans.
1 Cigarettes: 2,117,931
Cigarettes are the No. 1 item found amidst debris cluttering the world’s waterways. Given that they're supposedly made of paper and tobacco, and further given that the Ocean Conservancy only cleans up once in the fall, wouldn’t you think these items should be more than soggy; surely they'd be shredded, disintegrated and just plain not there? That fact that more than two million are found intact in one day suggests the volume of cigarettes in the ocean at large is much, much larger than that figure. Personal health should be an incentive to stop use of this product butt if your health isn’t incentive enough, how about everyone else’s, including marine life?