Top 10 Dangers of Plastic Pollution and How You Can Fight Back

By Jason Paul

As a child in Southern California, I remember spending years of my life with toes sandy and trunks wet. There was always something new to explore, from a tide pool or shipwreck, to the "gnarly" break just around the bend.

I remember vividly the first time I found a piece of plastic floating in the ocean. I must have been 9 or 10 years old and I was swimming, as I often did, past the breakers, underwater, eyes open. I noticed something small and shiny that seemed oddly out of place. At first I assumed that it must be some exotic species that I hadn’t noticed before but upon closer inspection, I noticed a dial-code for international calling. I had stumbled upon a plastic-coated phone card that had inevitably floated downstream to my playground: the ocean.

Today, it's hard not to notice all of the floating plastic that is plaguing our waterways. Plastic bags imitating jellyfish are as abundant as traveling sargassum. Broken beach toys and bits of Styrofoam can be found intertwined with washed up chunks of kelp. Personally, I’ve noticed a change in the environment over the past few decades, and as a young parent, I question what world we’re leaving behind for the next generation.

The effect that plastic is having on our world is difficult to fathom. It was recently estimated by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation that by 2050 there very well may be more plastic in our oceans than fish (by weight). It’s hard to believe, but it becomes scarily realistic after looking at the statistics. In the greater Los Angeles area alone more than 10 tons of plastic pour into the ocean on a daily basis.

But aside from this catastrophe, what can we do? How can we be pragmatic about having a positive effect on our environment rather than stuffing it full of "recyclables"? Read on to discover 10 top dangers of plastic pollution and what you can do to fight back.

Danger #1: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but do you really know what it is? In 2003 Captain Charles Moore took a shortcut through a Pacific gyre on his way back to California when he discovered something unexpected: a sea of plastic. It took he and his crew a week to cross the patch before they were able to glimpse clear water again free of debris; bottle caps, plastic bags, fragments of hardhats or long forgotten toys. Recent estimations put the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at three times the size of France. In a recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, it’s estimated that at the surface of the patch, plastic outnumbers organisms by 180:1, so you can forget about 2050.

Action tip: Pledge your support.

Support local beach and waterway cleanups near you, and support organizations that are working on source reduction, or stopping the flow of plastic into our waterways, oceans, and environment.

Danger #2: But wait, there's more.

Unfortunately, the effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch go far beyond the view. Based on recent research from The Ocean Cleanup, 84 percent of the plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contain harmful chemical pollutants. This has an impact on the ocean in the form of increased acidification, but frankly we don’t know the effect these chemicals could have on the environment in the long-run. But that’s not the worst of it. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of 5 gyres in the world where plastic has begun to accumulate at astonishing rates. The North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans all have their own patch that is slowly spreading across the ocean

Action tip: Get educated and get involved.

Stay informed. Don't get lazy and don’t get discouraged. It’s easy to get bogged down in the negativity of today’s world, and watching the news doesn’t always help. The worst thing you can do is alienate yourself by removing yourself from the conversation. Instead, dive deeper, learn more, and educate others. The more you know, the more power you have to change the direction things are headed in.

Danger #3: Micro what?

Affectionately called MOOP by Burning Man aficionados worldwide, microplastics are simply the tiny bits of plastic that seem to find themselves everywhere and nowhere all at once. Your favorite kindergarten craft ingredient, glitter, is microplastics. Anything from the size of the period at the end of this sentence to the quarter in your pocket, microplastics are bad news. A popular haunt for the microplastic is the inside of a micro-invertebrate like krill. Serving as the main food source for nearly half of all whales, seals, penguins, squid, and fish, microplastics may work their way up the food chain towards humans.

Action tip: Take two.

A British non-profit has taken to social media to spread the word of helping our environment.  #2minutebeachcleanup, a project of 1% For The Planet, calls itself "a growing family of beach lovers rolling up their sleeves to help rid the world’s beaches of marine litter and plastic pollution, 2 minutes at a time." The idea is simple, during your next seaside jaunt, before heading back to your car, take two minutes to pick up as much trash as you can find. Snap a photo and post it to your social media using #2minutebeachcleanup. The response has been overwhelming — moving quickly from a little known hashtag to a worldwide movement. Every little bit counts, so don’t forget to grab some MOOP on your way off the sand.   

Danger #4: Another great extinction.

At one point, megafauna like giant sloths, dire wolves, mammoths, and even giant beavers roamed North America. Some scientists speculate that their extinction could have been caused by Paleoindians, the first North Americans, who hunted these species to extinction. How fitting that today, our oceans are experiencing a comparable event, caused by humans. Everything from plankton to whales have been found in the ocean having digested microplastics. But does this have an effect on our species? Scientists say large amounts of plastic in the ocean can have bio-accumulative effects on food webs.

Action tip: Cut it out.

The simplest thing you can do to change the amount of plastic going into the ocean is use less plastic. Start with single-use plastic such as bags, bottles, and straws. Buying whole, unpackaged foods can seriously reduce the amount of plastic waste that you produce. Many recycling centers simply don't have the infrastructure to recycle plastics like bits of Saran Wrap or food packaging. Less than 8 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S., so buying food with less packaging will make a difference.

Danger #5: Paradise Lost.

Bali is one of the most sought after travel destinations for surfers in the world, made famous for long peeling right-handers and square barrels breaking over shallow chunks of reef. Today, one of Bali's top tourist destinations, Kuta, is making headlines for something entirely different.  Government officials in Indonesia recently declared a "garbage emergency" for the 100 tons of garbage that wash up, daily, on beaches from Kuta to Jimbaran and Seminyak. If we don't change the fate of Indonesia could be the fate of surf sanctuaries worldwide.

Action tip: Book a trip.

You can help this problem by simply going to Bali. Tell your friends how epic the surf is, how great the parties are, and how much trash is floating in the line-up. The more folks know about these problems, the more likely we’re going to see change.

Danger #6: More people, more footprint on the earth.

The greater outdoor industry, aquatic sports included, amounted to an 887 billion dollar industry in 2017 and is showing signs of growth. Adventure is trending and with it comes responsibility.  Unfortunately, our participation in outdoor activities from sea to summit has an impact on the environment. In 2016 alone, the National Park Service tallied their highest visitation rates to date: 331 million visits. Visitors who aren’t well versed in 'leave no trace' environmental ethics may choose to wash diapers in local streams, leave plastic bottles behind, or carve their name into old growth forests.

Action tip: Stay active.

The good news is that with growing participation in outdoor recreation, we may see a rise in environmental attitudes and behaviors. Studies have shown that people who participate in outdoor recreation activities are more likely to have an "appreciative" outlook on the environment rather than a “consumptive” outlook. Meaning, they may be more likely to carry beliefs and thus take action to preserve our natural spaces rather than exploit them.

Danger #7: The Surfing Problem.

Surfing as an industry is notoriously not sustainable. While many of us consider ourselves environmental stewards, leaders, and general sustainability aficionados, the fact is that the gear we use typically doesn’t biodegrade. Wetsuits are made from petroleum, boards are made from fiberglass, and leashes made from plastic aren’t great for the environment. This isn’t helped by bulk superstores’ favorite poster child: Costco. Since Costco dove into the surf industry with everyone’s favorite board to hate, the Wavestorm, it seems that the $99 8’0” longboard has found its way into every line-up around the globe. While the fact that crowds may simply harsh your mellow, this isn’t the biggest issue with Wavestorms. Made popular by it’s cheap price and remarkable maneuverability, Wavestorms have one secret weapon: they’re eternally returnable.  With a Costco membership, you can return a Wavestorm for just about anything from years of sun damage, delamination, dings, or decapitation. Unfortunately, once returned there’s only one place these boards will end up: the landfill.

Action tip: Ride a beater.

Considering Americans alone produce nearly 250 million tons of trash each year, it’s high time we figured out something to do with our used gear. There’s no shame in riding a board until it’s dead, filled with water and dinged from nose to tail. In fact, some longboarders prefer a heavy board for earlier drop-ins. That being said, there are a number of companies you can choose from that are recognizing the sustainability loophole in our favorite pastimes and finding new ways to address it. Companies like Patagonia, Matuse, and Soöruz, are finding new ways to green-up our surf gear by making wetsuits from plant-based materials. In the SUP industry, several companies who are well-known for manufacturing some of the best inflatable paddle boards on the market are working to incorporate more environmentally-friendly materials into their board designs. Others like RERIP are finding new and innovative ways to recycle old boards to be donated to deserving groms around the globe. Bottom-line: demand transparency in your purchases and search out companies doing their part to protect the places where we play.

Danger #8: Those pesky tourists!

If you’ve ever been on the biting side of a localism display, you may have a slight bias against tourists – it’s safe to say that tourism doesn’t always bring the most environmentally conscious.  The industry itself can inspire environmental destruction in the form of man-made beaches where mangrove forests once stood and crushed turtle eggs under uneducated flip-flops. Just as uneducated visitors can damage pristine wilderness areas, self-centered tourists can ignore the effect they may have on our coastal areas.

Action tip: Take a trip with a purpose.

Organizations around the world like Waves for Development can help to ensure that your next trip leaves a positive impact on the environment and community. With destinations in Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua, Waves works to ensure that surf travel benefits the people and communities where it happens. Don’t forget that while helping local communities, you’ll be scoring some of the best waves of your life from Lobitos in Peru to Popoyo in Nicaragua.

Danger #9: Puff, Puff, Pollution

The cigarette is the most common piece of litter found in North America. While smoking rates are down in today’s youth, cigarettes still amount to about 40-50 percent of all waste collected from roads and streets. As stated by your local storm drain, all waste eventually finds its way to the ocean and in turn leaves a lasting mark. Plastic components found in cigarette filters cannot biodegrade. Recent studies have shown that cigarette butts, when exposed to water, can leak harmful chemicals capable of killing 50 percent of fish in a controlled laboratory. One can imagine the effects that millions of cigarettes can have on the ocean and its wildlife.

Action tip: Quit.

Kicking the habit is easier said than done, but if you’re not motivated purely by the damaging effects smoking can have on your body, think critically about its effect on the environment. Be the change you want to see in the world — if you want to see a change in our environment, stop smoking.

Danger #10: All those people, all that sunscreen.

If it weren’t for sunscreen, I’m pretty sure I would have quit surfing a long time ago. While I’ve never truly been a fan of UV protection, I do recall a colossal burn in my early 20’s that left me boiled and blistered. These days I tend to slap a bit of zinc wherever I can. Recent studies have shown that oxybenzone, a popular chemical found in many sunscreen products, is having a devastating effect on coral reefs. According to findings from the National Park service, nearly 6,000 tons of sunscreen is absorbed by coral reefs each year. Choose a nontoxic sunscreen without oxybenzone before you head outside.

Action tip: Be a teacher

The best way to share your love, knowledge, and experience in the ocean is to share it with others. While you may have worked a few surf instructor jobs through your youth, take a moment to teach others why our oceans and outdoor spaces mean something to you. Teaching is an extension of learning, in that you will inevitably learn and grow from interaction with your students. Teaching can help you understand new perspectives and find new ways to share the importance of protecting our oceans and environments. So take your friend out into the line-up, push a child into a wave, or find your way into the classroom.

While our world will certainly continue to face challenges, there are actions that we can take as ocean enthusiasts, leaders, and stewards to impact the direction we’re heading in. As surfers or general outdoors loving people, we have a responsibility to ensure that future generations can enjoy our world as we have. It’s up to us, today, to ensure that our children, and our children’s children live in a world where we can dive deep in clear blue water, swim through dense kelp forests and coral reefs, or explore dense forests free of plastic debris.

Be the change you want to see — if all you do today is pick up a few cigarette butts or refuse single-use plastic, you’re on the right track. It’s daunting to think that our world has changed so drastically over the course of the last hundred years, but we can ensure that the next hundred years has a positive impact on our environment and helps to save the precious natural playground we’ve all grown to love.

Jason Paul has had a long-standing love affair with the ocean. He is a stand up paddleboarding enthusiast and lead editor of InflatableBoarder.com and currently lives in beautiful Panama with his wife and two small children.

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