Thank you for accepting our challenge to give a sip for the sea. Here are a few tools to help you get started.
Plastic was first introduced in the 1950s as a substance that was cheap, lightweight, durable, and could be thrown away after use. Now, a half century later, we know that there is no "away:" plastics hang around in the environment. Today, the world produces hundreds of millions of tons of plastic each year (370 in 2016),1 but upwards of 90% of it never gets recycled.2
1 Association of Plastics Manufacturers. (2017). Plastics—the Facts 2017.
2 Geyer, Roland; Jambeck, Jenna; Law, Kara Lavender (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances. 3, 7.
In many cases, straws are a reflex, not a necessity. A server puts a straw in your drink or in with your takeout, and chances are, you might use it. And while each one is small and lightweight, because of their size straws generally can't be recycled.
Instead, they pile up to tons of unnecessary plastic pollution and many end up in the ocean. Plastic straws were prominent among the top 10 types of marine debris found during the Ocean Conservancy's 2017 International Coastal Cleanup. A recent report compiled by 10 organizations (B.A.N. List 2.0) pooled all the available reports and ranked straws fifth among plastic polluters in terms of the number of items found.
Once straws are in the ocean, they don't biodegrade, but break up into smaller and smaller pieces that linger in the water for potentially hundreds of years or are ingested unknowingly by ocean wildlife. Certainly, it's not only straws that are to blame, but they are part of the problem and, since they are unnecessary, let's get rid of them.
Recycling does help, but overall plastic production is far outpacing recycling capacity in the U.S. and around the world. Furthermore, plastic straws generally can't be recycled. Not using them is the best policy.
The world's oceans are drowning in plastic. Studies have shown that roughly nine million tons of plastic from land end up in the oceans every year, the equivalent of dump truck full of plastic every minute. If we don't slow this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.3
3 World Economic Forum. (January 2016). The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics.
Today, discarded plastic is found in almost every marine habitat on Earth. Sea turtles are known to ingest it because they mistake it for food. Birds, like albatrosses, swallow it by accident because they skim the ocean and pick up plastic when they hunt. Plastic can kill animals when it gets lodged in their throats or stuck in their stomachs, which leads them to stop eating and starve to death. The frequency of these incidents is increasing. As of 2015, all known species of sea turtle, 54 percent of all marine mammal species, and 56 percent of all seabird species have been affected by entanglement or ingestion.4 Scientists are trying to determine if the toxic chemicals that accumulate in plastic in the ocean is also killing creatures living in or around the ocean.
4 Gall, S.C.; Thompson, R.C. (2015). The impact of debris on marine life. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 92, 170-179.
There isn't a ton of existing scientific research to help answer this question yet. However, for a 2015 study that was published in Scientific Reports, experts examined fish from seafood markets in Indonesia and the U.S. About a quarter of the 140 fish the researchers purchased had some form of garbage in their guts, including plastic fragments and textile fibers.5 It goes beyond the gut, though. Other research has shown that ingesting plastic can also lead to a build-up of hazardous chemicals in fish over time.
5 Rochman, Chelsea M.; et al. (2015). Anthropogenic debris in seafood. Scientific Reports, 5, article no. 14340.
Scientists are trying to find out. It is a fact that most humans have been exposed to plastic and that it is showing up in our bodies. For example, the Center for Disease Control found BPA (bisphenol-A), a common compound used in the manufacture of plastics, in the urine of nearly all of more than 2,500 participants in a nationwide study of Americans over the age of six.6 There is growing concern about the different ways we are exposed to plastics and their potential effects on human health. The best solution for us and for wildlife going forward is to keep this stuff out of the environment in the first place.
6 Centers for Disease Control. (February 2015). Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.
At WCS, we've eliminated single-use plastic straws, cold drink lids, and single-use carryout plastic bags from the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and the New York Aquarium. WCS has also committed to significantly reduce or eliminate single-use plastic beverage containers by December 2020.
Based at our New York Aquarium, WCS's New York Seascape team is committed to protecting the New York Bight—which encompasses more than 16,000 square miles of coastal and ocean waters from Montauk, New York, to Cape May, New Jersey. These waters are home to iconic wildlife, including sea turtles, whales, and sharks, as well as nursery grounds and critical habitat for hundreds of other species. Through local field research, policy initiatives, and public outreach, the team seeks to protect and restore threatened species and critical habitat, encourage smart ocean planning to ensure a safe place for wildlife in our busy waters, and build ecological resilience in nearshore and river habitats.