Plastics not the only scourge polluting world’s oceans



This April 6, 2018 photo shows an anti-pollution message in Fuerteventura, the second-largest of the seven Canary Islands. Experts say chemical pollution from farming and industrial runoff poses an even greater threat than plastics.

Climate change is an ongoing issue and the world’s oceans, coastlines and coastal communities are being disproportionately impacted by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In recent years, ocean cleanup efforts have been on the rise in order to help get rid of the millions of tons of plastic that enter the ocean each year. When plastic enters the ocean currents, it begins to break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which cause tremendous harm to marine life.

Plastic pollution in the ocean kills sea turtles, whales, seabirds, fish, coral reefs, and countless other marine species and habitats, according to San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit Oceanic Society. 

Another reason plastic is such a problem: It doesn’t go away.

“Plastic in our oceans not only harms marine life and their ecosystems, but it has been known to accumulate pollutants and transport them throughout the ocean,” said a spokesperson for 4ocean, a nonprofit company that sells bracelets made out of recycled materials. For each bracelet purchased, the company says they remove a pound of trash from the ocean.

Although plastics are an ongoing problem when it comes to ocean pollution, it is far from the only issue. 

“It is a much bigger issue than just plastics,” said Kelly Tzoumis, a professor of public policy studies at DePaul University. “In fact, plastics is a smaller issue — important, but smaller. 

Tzoumis said bigger issues are algae accumulation, caused by common man-made pollutants like pesticides, detergents, oil, sewage and other industrial chemicals seeping into the ocean. These chemicals, byproducts of human activities such as farming, trigger massive blooms of algae that rob the water of oxygen, leaving dead zones where few marine organisms can live, such as what happened and is still happening at the Great Barrier Reef. 

“I actually swam at the Barrier Reef,” Tzoumis said. “I saw it with my own eyes, I snorkeled it and it’s dissolving — it is literally dissolving.” 

There are many laws that forbid dumping of harmful materials into the ocean, but large concentrations of pollutants still persist in the environment and it is difficult to fully remove them. Pollutants can take a long time to break down, with plastic often taking up to hundreds of years to decompose.

“It’s not even a question if we can’t go back, because we are accelerating it,” Tzoumis said. We withdrew from the Paris Agreement.”

President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that the U.S. would be officially withdrawing from the Paris climate accord next fall. This will leave the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases as the only nation to abandon efforts to fight climate change. The Paris Agreement requires each country to determine, plan, and regularly report on the contribution that it undertakes to mitigate global warming. 

According to some reports, the damage done to the earth may be irreversible, with only limited time to fix it. According to NASA, it could take decades, if not centuries, for our oceans to respond to efforts because carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

“A lot of scientists say that we have crossed that line,” Tzoumis said.

And in Oct. 2018, a landmark study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if the global temperature rises 1.5 degrees Celsius, there may be irreversible change to the ocean’s “marine biodiversity, fisheries, and ecosystems, and their functions and services to humans,” as well as oceanic temperature, oxygen content and acidity.

“We got to fix the bigger problem,” Tzoumis said. “And that’s climate change, chemicals going into the oceans and the use of plastics.”

Tzoumis suggested policymakers should prioritize educational initiatives and economic incentives over simple cleanup efforts. And she said penalties [for consumers] need to be “so significant that it’s cheaper and more affordable for you not to pollute.”