By Kahi Pacarro
Makapu’u to Kahuku are trashed! Not sure if you’ve been to a beach on our beloved East side lately, but if you haven’t, let us tell you: they’re the dirtiest we’ve ever seen them. We believe that the largest influx event of plastic washing ashore is happening right now.
The influx is even catching the eye of our mainstream news, and chances are you’ve seen news coverage in the mornings about the recent wave of marine debris washing ashore on the beach. Let me tell you what I told them during my interview, and then take it a little deeper:
Why is this happening?
Marine Debris (Plastic Pollution) is a symptom of society’s over consumption. Not just of plastic, but of almost everything. Cleaning beaches is not going to solve the problem. It will remove what’s washing ashore, but it won’t stop more of it from coming in.
Well then what do we do?
We need to clean beaches because the buildup of plastic pollution will make them unusable for us and other animals, like endangered monk seals and sea turtles. Cleaning also provides a huge wake up call for the cleaner, which leads to more poignant solutions. What is really needed to be done is a multi pronged approach at reducing the use of plastic.
What’s up with all the small pieces of plastic?
When plastic enters the ocean it enters into a vicious sloshing cauldron with giant waves, hungry animals, and debris. Most vicious is the unrelenting beaming sun that catalyzes photodegradation (photo – sun / degradation – breakup). These forces take what may have been a plastic fork and break it up into hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny pieces of its original self. In this state, the plastic fork is no longer recognizable. We call these tiny pieces, microplastic or mesoplastic. This happens to all plastic products, not just the fork. Photodegrade is the opposite of biodegrade.
Is it dangerous?
Yes. Hell yes. Plastic is lipophilic, which means that it attracts oil. Stormwater runoff from cities and agricultural areas like Haleiwa or Honolulu dump unfathomable loads of toxic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, phthalates, car products and more into the ocean. Many of these are made with oil and are often called Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Once in the ocean, these POPs come across your old toothbrush, a plastic comb, that plastic fork, or the tiny pieces of microplastic. Attracted to each other, the POPs and the plastic combine to become toxic.
Wait, it’s gets worse!
The microplastic laden with toxic POPs often resemble fish eggs, larvae, or smaller fish. A recent study also proved that photodegrading plastic emits the same smell that phytoplankton does therefore attracting seabirds and larger animals to high concentrations of plastics and encourages ingestion. In other words, animals in and flying above the ocean are eating our toxic coated plastic because they think it’s food.
When fish eat the plastic laden in POPs, it makes the fish themselves toxic. The plastic in their stomachs and intestinal track leach POPs where it then drifts into the fatty tissues of the fish. This happens because fat is oil based and therefore lipophilic acting like a magnet for the POPs. The plastic, is pooped out if it can, but part of its toxic load remains.
Toxic chemicals are ending up on our dinner plates and in our own bodies as a result of ocean pollution. That’s because of biomagnification. We are at the top of the food chain (most of the time), and we eat fish that have eaten hundreds of smaller fish, who ate smaller fish, who may have eaten toxic plastic. When fish eat plastic and the toxins enter their fatty tissues, they often get eaten by larger fish. The toxins build up in the next fish even though they’re not actually eating the plastic. As the predator chain moves higher, so does the load of toxic loads in the fatty tissues.
As more research comes out, we will begin to see how this is having an effect on us. We do know that these toxic chemicals are often estrogen-mimicking endocrine disruptors and can have a detrimental effect on the body during certain developmental time periods.
Pregnant women already know not to eat apex fish like ahi and swordfish due to risk of mercury poisoning. It may be soon recommended to also not eat them to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors.
We are the problem, we are the solution.
Let’s take an inventory of the chemicals and plastics we use and reduce them. Most importantly let’s grab a friend and head to an East side beach and clean it up.
In short, let’s stop ignoring the fact that we are poisoning ourselves and do something about it. Not only for us, but for the generations that come after us.
Kahi Pacarro is the Executive Director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii.