Back in 2015, marine biologists Nathan Robinson and Christine Figgener were surveying Olive Ridley sea turtles before being interrupted by ocean pollution. On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica — N 10°40’37.9″ W 085°42’32.6″, more precisely — they encountered a pair of mating sea turtles and a third male turtle lurking nearby. The non-mating male was captured and brought on the boat to be tagged.
Upon closer inspection, they discovered a cylindrical object encrusted in the sea turtle’s left nostril.
It was a plastic drinking straw.
And it had been stuck there for weeks.
Since the researchers’ permits only allowed for counting and tagging of turtles, not transportation to land for veterinary care, the team chose to remove the straw right there on the boat. After a few tugs, researchers released a 10 cm straw from the turtle’s nostril. Then, they treated the area with Betadine solution. As soon as the bleeding stopped, the voyeuristic turtle went back to the ocean.
The Public Outcry Begins
You remember when that video went viral. He became the “poster turtle” for the damaging effects of ocean pollution on marine life. Public outcry spawned plastic straw bans in various cities. California pushed statewide legislation that made it illegal for full-service restaurants to supply plastic straws to customers unless customers requested them.
But all that outcry didn’t accomplish much to reduce ocean pollution. Plastic straws are still finding their way to the sea in untold numbers. Frankly, even though straws and little plastic coffee-stirrers are the sixth most common trash item found on California’s beaches (totaling less than 5% of the beach trash picked up from 1996 to 2018), they’re among the least of our problems.
(Critical thinkers will find it unusual that no new data has been published that suggests a diminished number of plastic straws on our beaches since the legislation took effect. But for the moment, let’s blame that lack of data in 2019 and 2020 on COVID-19.)
Let’s set adorable and exotic sea turtles aside for a moment and think about the real issues of ocean pollution.
The Real Danger of Ocean Pollution
Per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 50% to 80% of the planet’s oxygen comes from the ocean. Sometimes people are shocked to hear that. After all, we learned in elementary school that trees and rainforests create most of the oxygen we breathe.
Now, rainforests are precious. We’re not arguing that!
A Few Quick Notes About Rainforests
The cornucopia of rainforest blessings is worth an entire article by itself, especially in these days of surface scarring and cobalt mining for the lithium batteries that electric cars need. For the moment, know:
- Rainforests are home to 3,000,000 known species.
- Even though they cover a tiny percent of our planet’s surface, jungles are home to more than 50% of the surface’s plants and animals.
- 2,500 various tree species do absorb considerable amounts of carbon emissions.
- Fungi and bacteria offer modern researchers hopes of future medical treatments.
But let’s get back to oceans and oxygen.
Most of the Oxygen We Breathe Comes From the Ocean
Most of the oxygen we breathe every day comes from oceanic plankton — algae, plants, and some bacteria that can photosynthesize.
One notable species is Prochlorococcus. It’s the smallest photosynthetic organism we know. But these little critters create 20% of the oxygen in our entire biosphere. That’s a higher percentage than all the tropical rainforests on earth combined!
But don’t forget, even as some ocean creatures are generating oxygen, others are consuming it. Marine animals use oxygen to breathe, just like land animals. A lot of precious oxygen is also consumed when dead matter decays. So the bottom line is this: half of the oxygen created in the ocean is used there. The rest comes up to us.
Maritime Pollution by the Numbers
According to NOAA, we dump billions of pounds of trash in our oceans and freshwater systems every year. That includes household trash and industrial waste, and it doesn’t even touch the occasional oil spill. Let’s explore those numbers.
Mismanaged Plastic Trash by Country
Those billions of pounds of trash heading to our oceans, from both manufacturing and household use, include:
- 880,000,000 metric tons coming from China
- 320,000,000 from Indonesia
- 1,000,000 from Egypt
- And only 300,000 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste coming from the US
Since Asian countries manufacture more than half the world’s plastic goods — and consume enormous amounts of petroleum while doing so, by the way — it makes sense that those countries are responsible for most of the plastics pollution.
Thinking back to our plastic straws and stirrers (making up 5% of found beach trash), it becomes clear even if we stopped using plastic straws entirely, it would still only be a drop in the total trash bucket.
But not all the pollution dumped in the oceans will arrive at our shores.
Garbage patches are large ocean areas where trash and other marine debris — mainly commercial fishing gear — collect. Despite what the internet might have you believe, they don’t usually manifest as islands and trash flotillas.
Usually, large, rotating ocean currents called gyres form the garbage patches. They pull debris into one location, often to the gyre’s center, like a whirlpool. The oceans have five known gyres: one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Pacific Ocean, and two in the Atlantic Ocean.
Each gyre is home to a garbage patch, which continually changes in shape and size. The debris making up the garbage patches goes from the ocean’s surface all the way down to the ocean’s floor, like an undersea trash tornado.
But physical debris and plastic is only one type of maritime pollution. Chemical waste is another topic.
Point and Nonpoint Source Pollution
NOAA says most chemical pollutants that find their way to the ocean come from human activities along the coastlines and further inland. Point source pollution comes from significant known polluters like the mining, sewage treatment, manufacturing, and even the pharmaceuticals industries.
Most city residents can consider themselves a part of the problem, too. Raw sewage treated at municipal plants eventually makes its way to the oceans as chemically treated wastewater.
But if you have a septic tank, you’re no less of a polluter.
Nonpoint source pollution is driven by runoff. That water picks up pollutants from septic tanks, the transportation industry, agriculture and pesticides, and timber harvesting.
Like the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, point source pollution events are often enormous and newsworthy, and they have major ongoing environmental impacts.
Thankfully, they occur less often.
But all these chemical pollutants do more than affect our precious oxygen supply. They also damage much of the world’s food source.
Oceans Feed the World
The “American” food experience — a hamburger and milkshake, for instance — is much different from that of the rest of the world. Our nation boasts pasture lands in all 50 states. More than a quarter of the US land area goes toward private ranching. Put another way, we eat a lot of beef and a lot of dairy — because we can.
But other countries don’t have that luxury. The world’s oceans feed billions of people every day. In fact, of all the food commodities — corn, soybeans, beef — seafood is the largest traded food commodity in the world!
On the Impact of Ocean Pollution and Seafood
NOAA says heavy metals and other chemical contaminants can accumulate in seafood, making it harmful for us to eat. Fish and other organisms that filter their food out of the water pick up microplastics and even pharmaceuticals and hormones. Those contaminants pass on to the following species that eat them. Some research suggests they can cause congenital disabilities and cancers.
Even in the US, a nation that consumes relatively small amounts of seafood per capita, we know ocean pollution adversely affects at least one-third of the shellfish-growing waters of the US. The problem is compounded for people in, say, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Italy, where seafood is a prime source of dietary protein.
Pharmaceutical Pollution: Drugs in the Water
The nature of the oceans and the water cycle makes hard data hard to come by. But it’s probably safe to assume that we, American consumers, are responsible for a significant portion of the pharmaceutical chemicals and personal care products that wind up in both our freshwater sources and oceans.
According to Harvard Medical School, the typical US medicine cabinet has plenty of unused and expired drugs. Only a fraction of them will be disposed of correctly. Reported data from a medication collection program in California in 2007 suggests that users discard half of all medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — incorrectly.
That’s a lot of medication and beauty supplies that will eventually get into our freshwater, filter down into groundwater, and finally, find their way into oceans.
Ultimately, the problem of maritime pollution is much larger than plastic straws and shopping bags. Stay tuned for future articles in this series. We’ll call out the nations and organizations responsible for maritime pollution and discuss some new technologies in the works designed to battle it. We’ll look at various governments and their plans to combat water pollution. Then we’ll discuss some steps every individual can take to prevent it.
It Takes Small Strokes to Swim a Sea
If you’re wondering what you can do to battle ocean pollution today, in your home, or at the beach, remember never to flush medications down the toilet. Put cigarette butts where they belong. Also, try skipping the straw at your favorite restaurant, just for the fun of it.