Is there anything more beautiful than the sea? It has enthralled me since before I could swim. Limited to running in and out of the retreating waterline and building sloppy sandcastles on the shore, I trained a covetous eye on the dark blue horizon.
Some of my happiest memories as a girl were of summer vacations: body surfing waves until my lips were blue, then ravenously devouring sandwiches salted in sand, with a background symphony of gulls and the aroma of orange gelèe Bain de Soleil. Later, there was the joy of leaving an inlet and heading for open sea, monitoring the radio and keeping an eye on the GPS as an escort of dolphins appeared.
The ocean has been a constant source of comfort and wonder, largely because it has always seemed so vast, immutable and eternal. There’s a good chance you feel the same way. It’s not easy being an optimist about ocean health in this day and age, but I think we can confront today’s challenges in a way that’s honest and constructive. This is what I hope to do, with your help, in this column each month.
It’s important that we not look away from the facts. The ubiquitous single-use plastic bag has been spotted in the Mariana Trench, some 36,000 feet below sea level. Recently, about 1 million shoes and more than 370,000 toothbrushes were counted as part of 400 million pieces of plastic that washed up on a remote group of islands in the Indian Ocean.
Heartbreaking stories emerge each week of whales killed by ingesting pounds of plastic. According to the United Nations, approximately 380,000 marine mammals die each year by ingesting or being ensnared in abandoned fishing gear. And microplastics—tiny particles of degraded plastic, most so small they are invisible to the naked eye—have invaded the marine ecosystem.
In the face of these developments, people all over the world are mobilizing to save our seas. Dutch activist Boyan Slat invented a boom system to start sweeping up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This past summer, the California-based nonprofit Ocean Voyages Institute removed 40 tons of derelict fishing nets from that patch.
Whole communities are doing regular cleanups, dragging away scores of trash bags filled with plastic waste. Hawaii, New York, California and hundreds of U.S. municipalities have banned or taxed single-use plastic bags. Mango Materials, a startup in Silicon Valley, is working on creating natural biopolymers that can replace plastic. Adidas, in partnership with conservation advocates Parley for the Ocean, has sold more than 6 million pairs of sneakers made from recycled ocean plastic since 2015—and demand has exceeded supply to such an extent that Adidas has promised to sell 11 million pairs in 2019.
Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben has said we need to mobilize like we did for World War II to tackle climate change; I believe the same can be said for saving our oceans from the scourge of trash. We have only two options: reverse the flow of plastic, or give up and watch our planet choke to death.
Yes, plastic is so pervasive that it’s nearly impossible to avoid, but let’s take a vow to refuse plastic wherever we can. No straws. Coffee from places that give it to us in a paper cup. Vegetables and fruits that are not wrapped in plastic. Cloth totes for shopping. At the supermarket near our office, my pleas to get rid of the plastic clamshells at the salad bar were utterly ignored, but over the years, I saw more and more people shunning them, choosing instead to put their salads in paper soup containers.
Let’s look for ways to refuse to use plastic that’s pushed upon us. And let’s make it a priority to volunteer or donate to the organizations that are tackling this problem head-on.
Personal behavior and consumer demand will bring changes, maybe faster than we think. In the meantime, individual effort really does matter. To borrow one of my favorite quotes, from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, it may feel like your everyday battle “amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”