Plastic in the Ocean: What’s All the Fuss About?

Oklahoma is a long way from the ocean. So, why should we care that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans each year? The oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface. Ocean health is vital to the entire planet’s health. It’s vital to our health! Come to the Zoo June 9-10, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., for our two-day World Oceans’ Day celebration. You’ll learn what you can do to help protect our oceans. For some sobering facts, read on.

Exponentially Worse

It’s likely you have heard of the giant floating trash gyres collecting in the far away windless areas of our oceans. It’s also likely that you have heard the estimates about how long plastic and Styrofoam take to degrade--75 years for Styrofoam and 500 years for plastics. You may have thought like I did, “That won’t affect me for a very long time. If it can’t break down, it won’t hurt anything”. But, I was wrong. The very fact that these overwhelmingly long estimates for Styrofoam and plastic to degrade make the problem exponentially worse.

Flushed Right Down the Drain

Micro plastic or micro bead is the term being used for small plastic particles ranging from the relatively large .5 cm particles down to sizes undetectable to the naked eye at 0.005 cm. The micro plastic problem is culminating on two fronts. The first is the ten million metric tons of plastic put into the oceans every year when the large pieces quickly break and tear into smaller ones. Those massive floating trash islands are just a fraction. The second is micro beads used in health care products such as toothpaste, make-up and hair products. These are already made small and are flushed right down the drain.

Top of the Food Chain

We learned in school about the toxic effects of mercury and the pesticide DDT when they get into the food chain. We learned how they concentrate in the apex predators because they do not degrade. Micro plastics are following the very same play book. Scientists are starting to see the concentration of micro plastics increase in the smallest plankton to the largest animal on earth, the blue whale. It will increase in the fish we eat and the sea salt on our salad. If nothing is done we will start to see micro plastics concentrate in our tissues. Micro plastics contain and absorb chemicals that are harmful to human health. We are at the top of our food chain.

This is Personal

It’s not just about cleaning up a far-away floating trash island. It’s not just about recycling to make our landfill last another year. It’s not just about using a canvas bag at the grocery store versus a plastic bag. It’s not just about avoiding the use of single serve water bottles. Tackling this monumental effort to reduce and remove plastics from our water ways and oceans matters. It matters because it is about the food you put in your mouth, the food you feed your child, the Sunday lunch you share with your parents. Micro plastics are concentrating in our food and our water. This is personal.

--Mark Bechtel, Zoo curator/aquarium, life support, marine mammals

Photo: Sea lion Addie says “Stop polluting our oceans!” as she poses with a sculpture made from trash found in Zoo Lake.


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