Photo Series: Plastic Pollution

Today’s freediving adventure turned into a cleanup. Plastic is incredibly pervasive. It can look like food for the residents of these ecosystems. And as seen in one of my pictures, it degrades into microplastics that are smaller and smaller and can be accidentally swallowed without being seen. We need to ban single use plastics. It is ridiculous to make something designed to be used one time that lasts thousands of years. Unless we change things, this will be the legacy of humans.

These photos were taken on one small reef during one day. Can be used with permission. Email: dj@thedjchillwill.com

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You may have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is an area in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas and is garbage. The trash is contained in one area because the North Pacific Gyre traps it in its currents. It’s similar to how a whirlpool will snag your rubber ducky in the pool or bathtub. The North Pacific Gyre is like the whirlpool, but on a much larger and slower scale though. Even though it’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this doesn’t mean that it’s just garbage that’s floating on top of the water and easy to remove though. It’s much worse.

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What makes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch so much worse is that the plastic there is not just floating. One of the reasons plastic is so pervasive is because it is made in a way that ensures it will last 1000s of years. However, it will not exist in the same form for all thousands of years.

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Single-use plastic (ironic right, something that will last thousands of years is meant to be used once) will break down into something called “microplastics” seen here in this photo. Microplastics get much smaller than those seen in this photo. They get microscopic. It occurs because plastic photodegrades, this means the sun causes it to break apart. This issue with this is that it’s A) very difficult to clean up and B) infiltrates all the ocean organisms who cycle water through their bodies, inhabit the water, or eat other organisms that do one of the former two things.

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This means that all organisms are affected. Plastics and microplastics accumulate in the body like mercury, where the effects are increased throughout the trophic levels. So if phytoplankton ingests some plastic, then the zooplankton that eats it will get that plastic and all the plastic from the other organisms it ingests. This will increase and keep accumulating throughout the food web and will affect… any organism that eats the fish. This includes humans. Plastic is a known carcinogen and the increase of it in the world’s fisheries is causing widespread alarm.

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The photos you have seen in this series were shot in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida at one reef within one hour. Plastic is an incredibly pervasive and difficult to remove material. The full plastic bags and bag segments are notorious turtle killers because they look just like one of their frequent foods – jellyfish (see above photo). Plastic also kills birds and fish because it resembles their foods in colour and size. And, once ingested, plastic blocks food pathways and air pathways (look up Albatross Midway Atoll for more information on a massive species die-out because of plastic).

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Over 1,000,000,000,000 plastic bags are used every year worldwide. Of those, between 0.5 – 3 % are recycled. The U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags yearly at a cost of $4 billion and an estimated 120 million barrels of oil (plastics are made from oil). Scientists estimate that every square mile of ocean has at least 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. Ultimately, 10% of all plastics produced every year worldwide wind up in the ocean and 70% wind up on the ocean floor, where they will likely never degrade due to no sunlight. All facts about plastic from UN Environmental Programme (), except the fact about the cost of plastic bags. That was from the Wall Street Journal (@wsj). Thank you for going #onassignment with me.

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