February 8, 2012
Someone litters somewhere. Maybe it was an accident, but probably it was on purpose. According to research by Keep America Beautiful, 81 percent of littering behavior is intentional. Before you know it, pieces of that litter, particularly the plastic litter, are swirling around in the Atlantic Ocean!?! Don’t believe me? Stay with me for a minute.
Once litter is in the water or storm drain, it may cling to the shoreline, get caught in the plants in the waterway, or get hung up on other litter for a while. Eventually, though, it washes downstream into a river or even straight into the Chesapeake Bay. In our area, all drains and waterways lead to the Bay.The trash lies where it is littered until wind or water moves it, often into a ditch or a storm drain. Sometimes plastic bags are blown into a tree or a shrub. From the tree or shrub the plastic bag can end up very quickly in the water. Eventually, however, all paths in Hampton Roads lead to water.
Once in the Bay, the litter either washes up on the beaches, sinks to the bottom, or sweeps out into the ocean on the tides and currents. According to the EPA’s National Marine Debris Monitoring Program 49 percent of debris on beaches is definitely from land-based sources and another 33 percent could come from either land- or ocean-based activities. Land-based activities include individuals who litter (remember those intentional littering behaviors?) or commercial activities that result in litter (construction, garbage removal, etc). Some of it comes from storm debris, too.
Out in the Atlantic Ocean, the plastic litter (mostly), moved by wind, wave, and current, finds its way into gyres, areas where currents converge in an inward swirling motion. The debris, mostly polyethelene (think plastic jugs and bags), polypropylene (soda bottle lids, for example), and polystyrene (cups, cheap coolers, etc.) plastic, forms a soupy mix of plastic pieces that “are generally small – no bigger than your smallest fingernail – with a mass less than that of a paper clip”, according to Sea Education Association, an organization that has been studying this garbage patch for more than 20 years. The small pieces of plastic float at or near the surface of the water, but are hard to see because they are so small. SEA actually uses nets to capture and study some of this mess.
There is a direct link between the hand that throws the litter and the debris in the ocean. Why should we care? This is the gist what SEA says: plastic debris threatens marine animals through entanglement and ingestion. The plastic bits provide nice homes for invasive species to ride to other parts of the ocean. AND plastic carries toxins like PCBs and others and then can be eaten by fish that we eat. Think about sea turtles caught in plastic and with bellies full of plastic bags, and some our favorite fish eating the little bits and passing their toxins along to us. These are just a couple of examples, there are many other animals affected as well.
What can YOU do about it?
• NEVER litter.
• Insist that family and friends never litter – share information about the harm litter does with them.
• Tie up your garbage bags so litter cannot get out when the wind blows.
• If you notice litter around a business or agency, complain about it to the management.
• Volunteer to help pick up litter through various cleanup programs throughout the region. Or just pick it up when you see it! There’s no time like the present to make a difference.
• Write blogs or letters to the editor highlighting how good it is to keep things clean and how awful it is to litter. In other words, speak up!