Ban the bag, and styrofoam!
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Garbage has become a serious issue effecting oceans and ecosystems around the globe, but not everyone is aware of just how serious it's become. According to National Geographic "In 2010, eight million tons of plastic trash ended up in the ocean from coastal countries—far more than the total that has been measured floating on the surface in the ocean's "garbage patches." In more recent years that number has greatly increased with their estimation climbing to "5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean" on January 11, 2015. Nat. Geo. also states that "Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface..." That is the equivalent of 44,834 ELEPHANTS weighing 6 tons each floating on the surface of the ocean. National Geographic states "...while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea”, and that “Ocean plastic has turned up literally everywhere. It has been found in the deep sea and buried in Arctic ice.” When it comes to trash there is no 'away'.
A large portion of ocean debris is made up of materials that will never decompose such as plastic bags, and polystyrene (styro-foam). These materials break up into smaller pieces, and become consumed, filtered, or otherwise ingested by wildlife. There is difficulty distinguishing these bits from small eggs, or some form of food source. Keystone filter feeders such as our native oysters, clams, shellfish, and other small organisms are some of the first to become contaminated. NC Coastal Federation documents that “An adult oyster is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day. As they filter, they also provide an important link in the estuarine food web by transferring nutrients from the surface (plankton) to the bottom (benthos).” According to National Geographic “…the digestion of microplastics diverts some energy away from reproduction, oysters’ ability to reproduce is almost halved: Female oysters produce fewer and smaller eggs while male oysters produce slower-swimming sperm. Offspring produce more slowly. The cause? Blame the chemicals that make up microplastics.”
Larger predators consume toxic prey both directly and indirectly. The NC coastline is home to hundreds of endangered sea turtles, and their nesting sites. The Sea Turtle Conservancy reports “Many turtles, that have been killed by consuming debris, had plastic bags or fishing line in their stomachs, some as small as half of a fingernail. Sea turtles are especially susceptible to the effects of consuming marine debris due to their bodies' own structure. They have downward facing spines in their throats which prevent the possibility of regurgitation. The plastics get trapped in their stomach, which prevents them from properly swallowing food. Also, many sea turtle rehabilitation facilities commonly deal with "bubble butts," turtles that float as a result of trapped gas caused by harmful decomposition of marine debris inside a turtle's body. The gases cause the turtle to float, which leads to starvation or makes them an easy target for predators.”
The southern portion of Wrightsville Beach North Carolina is also an active nesting site to several migratory bird species. The Audubon Society North Carolina says "The south end of Wrightsville Beach, N.C. is a favorite among many beach-nesting birds. Each summer, nesting shorebirds arrive to raise the next generation of chicks. Since 2009, Least Terns, Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, Common Terns and Willets have gathered at the south end to find mates and raise their young."
The Audubon goes on to say "Because it hosts large numbers of birds, the site serves as a significant nesting site for beach-nesting species in North Carolina. As many as 20 percent of the state’s Least Terns and Black Skimmers have nested there, and their success helps maintain healthy populations in the state and in the region." Will the styrofoam problem here effect their numbers as well? If so, how will this effect other countries these bird species inhabit and their ecosystems?
Humans also inadvertently continue the cycle of bio magnification by consuming toxic marine animals like fish, and shellfish. As the plastics are dispersed throughout the food web the concentrated toxins accumulate in our bodies as well. Suddenly our family fish fry consists of tiny fragments of toxic polystyrene and plastics, to which we are completely unaware. This problem does not only effect public health, but wildlife populations, the balance of precious ecosystems, and our coastal economies.
During a visit to Wrightsville Beach's south end on August 14, 2016 I noticed there were small white balls by the hundreds washed up on the sand. At first glance they looked like eggs of some sort. The tiny white bits were farther up near dunes, in the reeds, along the shoreline, and pulled inside crab holes. I was shocked to discover these tiny balls were not eggs, but small bits of non-decomposing plastic styro-foam; ie. microplastics. The debris appeared to be identical to the styro-foam used in coolers, cups, fishing markers, and mooring buoys.
After one week of Wrightsville beach styro-foam collection we discovered an alarming average. Every 500 ft we collected 32oz styro-foam pieces from the sand alone with that average on a steady incline. As of September 10, 2016 the quantity of styrofoam present on this beach is too high, and well dispursed to measure. The collections also included plastic bags or pieces of plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic bucket lids, sheets, fishing lines, fishing hooks, plastic bits, socks, diapers, misc. garbage, and too many cigarette butts to count.
There are a vast growing number of states, and cities across the nation who have banned plastic foam, and plastic bags. A list compiled by Groundswell.org reports District of Columbia, Washington D.C., Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and California have officially banned plastic foam either partially or completely, and a host of other locations such as Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and Illinois all have bills currently in proposal. According to Ocean Conservancy "San Francisco County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a ban on the sale of polystyrene foam. Foam packing, cups and mooring buoys will be prohibited starting January 1, 2017.” On August 9, 2016 The Folly Beach Newsletter reported “The Folly Beach City Council unanimously voted to ban polystyrene coolers (best known by the brand name Styrofoam) or single use plastic bags, typically associated with bags handed out to customers after a purchase”, countries in Europe encouraged a large decrease in single use plastic bags by charging for them, and France just banned single use/disposable plastic-ware all together. It's time to join other coastal areas around the Nation and the globe in taking the necessary steps to ensure that our coastal ecosystems remain intact, and pristine for future generations.
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