by Nicole Rivard
It’s hard to admit, but I’d never thought of coral as a living, breathing animal, until my eyes brimmed with tears while I was watching a screening of “Chasing Coral,” the documentary that puts a spotlight on coral bleaching—the mass ocean epidemic where coral polyps release too much of their algae and starve themselves.
Seeing their brilliant colorful polyps and tentacles moving around, and teeming with life—one quarter of all ocean species depend on coral for food and shelter—turn ghostlike from bleaching was unnerving.
The goal of the film, which is available on Netflix, is to educate the masses on why coral bleaching happens: Our oceans are warming as they are forced to absorb massive, harmful amounts of carbon that humans release into the atmosphere.
During a Q&A after the screening of the film at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, I learned that in addition to climate change, other stress factors include pollution from urban and agricultural pesticide runoff and sedimentation from undersea activities like dredging. Compounding the problem, according to a new study published in the journal Science, is the 11.1 billion plastic items that entangle the Asian Pacific’s coral reefs, including discarded fishing equipment.
But all is not lost.
The biggest takeaway for me was that whether you live near a coral reef or not, you can prevent stress factors and plastic pollution in your local waterways, some of which empty into the sea, and that’s empowering. Because in doing so, you will be keeping an untold number of marine animals out of harm’s way.
IMPACTS OF MISMANAGED TRASH
There is a substantial body of evidence documenting the harmful effects of aquatic plastic debris on river and marine organisms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has been estimated that plastic marine debris adversely affects at least 267 species globally, including 86% of sea turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals.
Sea turtles, for example, readily consume plastic bags because they look so much like jellyfish. And seabirds are prone to ingesting microplastic debris that floats. The ingestion of plastic particles can lead to impairment of feeding due to blockage of the digestive system, decreased mobility, reduction of reproductive capacity, infection, suffocation and starvation.
Microplastics come from large pieces of plastic that eventually break up or from health and beauty aids like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpastes that use synthetic microbeads. While microbeads are only a portion of the problem, thankfully Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
The deadline to stop manufacturing rinse-off cosmetics was July 1, 2017 and the deadline to stop the introduction of these products into interstate commerce is July 1, 2018. Rinse-off cosmetics that are also considered non-prescription drugs cannot be manufactured after July 1, 2018 and cannot be sold after July 1, 2019.
Aquatic plastic debris not only affects animals, it can alter their habitat. As debris accumulates, habitat structure may be modified, light levels may be reduced in underlying waters and oxygen levels depleted.
Friends of Animals’ headquarters happens to be near a plethora of important coastal habitats, including beaches and dunes, coastal wetlands, shellfish reefs and freshwater wetlands. That’s because we are located along Long Island Sound, a tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean.
Estuaries are places where saltwater from the ocean mixes with fresh water from rivers draining from the land, and they are among the most productive ecosystems on earth. Long Island Sound was declared a National Estuary of Significance by Congress in 1987. But estuaries can become dumpsters for human waste.
“The biggest threat to Long Island Sound is the pressure of people living on it. You have 20 million people living within 50 miles of the coast. All of that activity backs up into the Long Island Sound,” said Leigh Shemitz, president of Soundwaters, a nonprofit established to protect the Sound through education and action.
Shemitz points out that pesticides from people’s lawns negatively impact the Sound, but old-fashioned litter is one of the biggest issues—after a big rain, the coastline will be scattered with litter. Items such as coffee cups, single-use plastic carry-out bags, produce bags and deflated balloons that didn’t make it to a garbage receptacle or that overflowed will eventually flow to Long Island Sound.
And microplastics are assaulting the Sound too. Likewise, at any given time, an estimated 165 million plastic particles are floating in estuaries that stretch from the Tappan Zee Bridge, along the lower Hudson River, south to Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey, according to a 2016 study released by the environment group NY/NJ Baykeeper. Eight-five percent were microplastics, about the size of a grain of rice.
PREVENTION AT THE SOURCE
The best way to stop plastic pollution is at its source, says Sandra Meola, outreach director for NY/NJ Baykeeper. She points out that Americans must do something about their plastic addiction because it just doesn’t make sense to use single-use products of an indestructible material for minutes and then discard them when they stay in the environment for hundreds of years.
She’s encouraged when she sees local governments and schools taking a stand against Americans’ obsession with convenience and single-use plastics. For instance, Rahway, New Jersey, has long banned plastic-foam containers, and New York City has eliminated styrofoam trays in all of its public schools.
That decision in 2013 eliminated 860,000 styrofoam trays used per day in 1,800 schools. Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Orlando, and Dallas public schools have followed suit. NY/ NJ Baykeeper is currently advocating for a New Jersey bill that would ban styrofoam in all public schools and universities in the state. Other foot soldiers in the movement to reverse Americans plastic addiction are notable cities such as Austin, Cambridge, Chicago and Seattle that have banned single-use plastic carry-out bags (unfortunately this doesn’t include plastic produce bags), and so have the entire states of California and Hawaii.
November marked a year since the ban went into effect in California.
Preliminary data showed that plastic bags, both the banned and still legal variety, accounted for 3.1% of the litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, down from 7.4% in 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s an evolution of the consumer that we are really focusing on, combined with education and legislative efforts,” Meola said. Shemitz concurs: “In terms of the Long Island Sound, the challenge with education is getting people living along it to see that small daily actions add up to incredible impact, positive or negative. That’s a pretty powerful story.”
FoA couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’ve rounded up the best tips from Soundwaters, NY/ NJBaykeeper and the EPA for anyone wanting to lighten their impact on the aquatic ecosystems in their own backyard this summer.
Use reusable cloth carry-out bags
Each person uses on average more than 700 plastic bags a year, according to Sandra Meola of NY/NJBaykeeper. Whether it’s single-use or thicker plastic bags, or even paper bags, all of them end up as waste. Interestingly, single-use plastic grocery bags were not introduced into the U.S. until 1979 and didn’t become mainstream until 1985, according to “How Plastic Became So Popular,” an article published The Atlantic magazine in 2014. Society can survive without them! Some reusable cloth and mesh produce bags we found that can be purchased online are: Ecobags www.ecobags.com; www.chicobags.com; www.vejibag.com; naturalhomebrands.com; www.flipandtumble.com.
Carry a reusable water bottle
Each week Americans buy enough plastic water bottles to circle the earth five times, according to the EPA. Reusable glass or stainless steel bottles are better for our waterways. There are plenty of water filtration systems to ensure water from your tap is healthy and taste great. And since a lot of places have refillable water stations now, you can save money too. Friends of Animals reusable water bottle is available at friendsofanimals.org.
Skip the straw
Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day. Give a Sip ad say, “no straw please” when ordering a drink at a restaurant. Contact the manager of your frequented food service establishments and ask them if they would be willing to only provide straws upon request. You can even carry your own reusable straws available at Glass dharma; Simply Straws and reuseit.
Pack a waste-free lunch.
Do away with throw-away lunch packaging. Each child who brings a brown bag lunch to school every day generates 67 pounds of waste each year. Replace juice cartons with a thermos. Friends of Animals Insulated lunch bag with Velcro closure and a handle to carry is just $7.
Bring your own to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurant. It’s a great way to reduce lids and plastic cups.
Bag the plastic bags by asking your community to support a single-use plastic carry-out bag ban or plastic foam container ban. Greenwich Connecticut, a town right in FoA’s backyard, became the second Connecticut municipality (Westport was the first) to ban single-use plastic carry-out bags. Jurisdictions that have instituted similar bans have seen significant changes. A year after Los Angeles County implemented its single-use plastic carry-out bag ban, there was a 95% reduction in the distribution of all single-use bags, including a 30% reduction in paper bags. San Jose has seen an 89% reduction of plastic bag litter in storm drains, a 60% reduction in creeks, and a 59% reduction in city streets.
Rid your school of Styrofoam trays
In 2013, NYC eliminated 860,000 foam trays used per day in all 1,800 public schools. Since 2015, NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Orlando, and Dallas eliminated half a billion Styrofoam trays per year from landfills. Take the first step to rid your school of Styrofoam by starting a Cafeteria Ranger program. Get started here.
Check labels on personal care products and non-prescription drugs. This July, microbeads will be phased out under a measure signed by President Obama called the Microbead Free Waters Act. Until then, avoid products that say polyethylene and polypropylene on the ingredient label. Check out NY/NJ Baykeeper’s plastic free product database: http://nynjbaykeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Microbead-Free-Products-Database1.pdf
Participate in the next International Coastal Cleanup, which will be Sept. 21, 2019, or start one of your own.
Every year during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, hundreds of thousands of volunteers comb lakes, rivers and beaches around the world for trash. For over three decades, more than 12 million volunteers have collected over 220 million pounds of trash. Visit https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/international-coastal-cleanup/ for more information. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently. Visit www.surfrider.org.