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Vickroy: Oceans and lakes awash in trash

Nick Mallos is conservatibiologist marine debris specialist Ocean Conservancy.  |  Supplied phocourtesy Ocean Conservancy

Nick Mallos is a conservation biologist and marine debris specialist at Ocean Conservancy. | Supplied photo courtesy of Ocean Conservancy

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Updated: April 4, 2014 11:45PM



As if the horror of a missing airplane with 239 on board isn’t enough, another disturbing issue has come to light as a result of the Malaysia Airlines mystery — the amount of trash in our oceans.

Even from our vantage point thousands of miles away from saltwater, the images of floating piles of debris — some of them big enough to be mistaken for airplane parts — is upsetting. And largely our fault.

The oceans generate most of the oxygen we breathe. More than 3.5 billion people depend on them for their primary source of food, as do sea mammals, fish and seabirds. So if you think this is mostly a problem for other areas of the world, think again.

Marine debris is a global problem caused by people — primarily as a result of littering, dumping and poor waste management infrastructure, said Dianna Parker, spokeswoman for the marine debris program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“I say primarily because natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and tsunamis can add to the problem,” she said. “NOAA defines marine debris as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.”

Marine trash can be litter, abandoned and derelict fishing gear, lost shipping containers or even derelict vessels — just about anything that’s improperly discarded, Parker said.

“I have seen appliances, flip-flops and even a couch on beaches,” she said.

NOAA often is asked how much debris is in the oceans, Parker said, but there are no accurate estimates because it’s difficult to track what enters the water globally.

“Instead, we have statistics on what we clean up,” she said. “For example, during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup last year, volunteers around the world picked up 10 million pounds of debris in one day.”

Parker said much of that trash is plastic, which does not degrade. It can stay in the ocean for long periods of time, even decades. It breaks down over and over again until it becomes tiny microplastics that are about 5 mm or less in size, she said.

“We know some species of birds and fish eat microplastics,” Parker said. “NOAA is currently funding research into how the chemicals in plastic behave once they’re in the ocean, and whether those chemicals are transferred through the food chain if an animal eats the plastic.”

There are other negative effects from ocean trash — economic loss from decreased tourism, harm to fisheries, costs to clean it up, vessel damage, navigation hazards, invasive species and habitat damage, according to Parker.

What plagues the oceans plagues the Great Lakes, too, she said.

“There’s a real need for awareness and action in Chicago because all the Great Lakes are connected and eventually run out through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic,” she said. “A plastic bottle dropped in Chicago could reach the ocean.”

Shedd Aquarium officials said plastic waste kills up to 1 million sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals and countless fish each year. More than 60 percent of the world’s coral is threatened due to pollution and climate change, they said.

So, we’re right to be disturbed by the sight of trash floating on our seas. But officials say, don’t stop there. Get involved, on a personal level and a political one, and help with cleanup efforts.

Parker said only prevention will fully alleviate the problem.

“So we encourage people to change behavior, including reducing use of single-use items and recycling when possible. Anyone can join beach cleanups to experience the issue firsthand,” she said.

Your commitment can be as simple as using reusable grocery bags or as ambitious as working toward governmental policy change. At the very least, be aware of your consumer habits, said Aislinn Guachay, manager of the Shedd’s Great Lakes and Sustainability programs.

What you buy today ends up in the trash tomorrow. All it takes is a wind gust for a plastic soda-can ring to blow from a trash bin into a storm sewer, where it can end up in the Mississippi River and eventually the ocean, where wildlife could mistake it for part of their habitat.

“Every action has a ripple effect, from our purchases to the way we take care of our back yards,” Guachay said. “It all has an impact on this world.”

Similarly, efforts to recycle or simply use less have great impact, too, she said, emphasizing that “one family can make a huge difference.”

Guachay said many people who watched news of the search for the Malaysian Airlines plane were shocked by the amount of garbage floating in the sea. She said the ocean world is foreign to most people, and “unfortunately, it took this tragedy to raise awareness. But awareness is a good thing.”

How to help? Avoid plastic bottles, bags, containers, etc. Don’t dump pharmaceuticals into the water system. Don’t waste water. Use energy efficient appliances. When dining out, choose ocean-friendly, sustainable seafood options.

You also can get involved in a cleanup campaign. Locally, the Alliance for the Great Lakes sponsors several beach cleanups each year. In addition, Shedd has supported the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Day for 23 years.

In 2012, cleanup volunteers around the world covered a distance of nearly 18,000 miles. The U.S and 96 other countries participated in the effort. This year’s event is Sept. 20. The public is invited to participate.

“The Great Lakes represent 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water,” Guachay said. “Thirty-six million people in the United States and Canada rely on them. It is a nonrenewable resource.”

So, while it’s startling and frightening to think about how much trash exists in the Great Lakes and the oceans, now you know how to help put an end to it.

Do it for the sea turtles, for the fish, for the birds. And do it for our future.

For information on the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Day, visit www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/international-coastal-cleanup/

For more information on how you can help preserve the Great Lakes, visit www.sheddaquarium.org/greatlakeshelp.html

For more information on Alliance for the Great Lakes beach cleanup, visit www.greatlakes.org/



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