Above: A plastic bottle in water. How often do you see plastic where it shouldn’t be?
Image ©
sarayuth3390, iStockPhoto.com

April 22nd is Earth Day. How will you celebrate it? One great way is to think about the way you use and get rid of plastic.

Earth Day 2018: End Plastic Pollution

This year’s Earth Day has a special theme. Why are we so concerned with plastic pollution? Because it’s a growing problem.

In February, a whale washed up dead on the coast of Murcina, a town in Northern Spain. Scientists did an autopsy (an exam to find the cause of death) and found that the whale had had eaten 64 pounds of plastic garbage. This included plastic bags and many other objects. The whale likely died from peritonitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the abdominal wall and organs in the abdomen. Scientists think that this inflammation was caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. They think this infection was caused by the huge amount of plastics ingested by the whale.

Sadly, this story is not new. In 2016, a pod of 13 whales washed up on a coast in Germany. While it wasn’t the cause of their deaths, they too had eaten a lot of plastic. And it isn’t just whales. Also in 2016, a rescue group found an endangered leatherback turtle dead on a Newfoundland beach. It had eaten a plastic bag, possibly mistaking it for its main source of food - jellyfish.

Above: This art installation was put on a beach in the Philippines in 2017. It’s by the environmental activist group Greenpeace. This is not a real whale, and it is not what a whale that had died from complications of ingesting plastic would look like. But the purpose of this art is to get people thinking about the growing problem of marine animals consuming plastic.
Image ©Greenpeace

Did you know? Researchers at the United Nations Environment Programme predict that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Unfortunately, there are more and more examples of marine animals dying from plastic. Here is some footage filmed by a diver in Bali, Indonesia. Look closely - those aren’t fish.

Why is plastic such a big problem?

The problem with plastic is, it doesn’t break down quickly. It stays in our environment long after humans have any use for it.

Did you know? A study estimated that between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic ended up in the ocean in 2010 .

Are there any solutions?

We know that plastic is difficult to break down easily. And we know that it’s threatening creatures in the oceans. But the important question to ask is, what can humans do to stop this?

Humans can start by using less plastic. Many grocery stores around the world are already doing this. In some places, plastic bags are banned altogether. In other places, plastic bags are taxed - the shopper has to pay to use one.

Currently, scientists are trying to develop new types of plastics that break down more easily.

Meanwhile, some companies are trying to get creative with ocean litter. Some are using it to create packaging, or even clothing. The goal of missions like these is to get plastics out of the ocean.

Did you know? The Plastic Bank is an organization where people can buy things with plastic instead of money. The plastic is then recycled. The company calls this product “Social Plastic”. The organization’s founders have recognized that overusing plastic is a huge problem in poorer countries. It gives people in these areas an income. It also keeps plastic out of oceans in the first place.

What can you do?

There are many things, small and big, that you can do to reduce your own use of plastic. Here are a few examples:

  1. Bring reusable shopping bags to stores.
  2. Use a travel mug when you order coffee or other hot beverages - keep those plastic lids out of the garbage!
  3. Buy products with less plastic packaging.
  4. Bring your own takeout containers and cutlery when you get takeout food.
  5. Choose reusable or recyclable cutlery, cups and dishes when you’re throwing a picnic or party.
  6. Stay away from single-use plastics - that is, plastics that you’ll use once, then throw away (Straws are an example of this. So are plastic lids on hot drinks.)
  7. Check product labels. Avoid products containing microbeads, which are mainly found in cosmetic and skin care products. Microbeads are small plastic beads that can get into oceans and harm aquatic life when they ingest them.
  8. Get involved - sign petitions and attend events that raise awareness about ending plastic pollution.
  9. Get cleaning - Is there a water or land cleanup near you? Participate!

How many others can you think of?

Let’s talk about it

  • What does Earth Day mean to you?
  • Have you ever seen plastic where it shouldn’t be, such as in a park, a forest or in the water? Describe what you saw.
  • Imagine you’re grocery shopping, either with a family member or a friend. What are some choices you could make to not take home any single-use plastics? Are there any products where you would not have a choice?
  • Is there a plastic bag ban in your area? Have you ever visited a place where there is a plastic bag ban?
  • Some places haven’t banned plastic bags, but charge shoppers to buy one. Is this effective? Why or why not?
  • Should restaurant and fast-food customers be charged for other single-use plastics, like straws and plastic cutlery? Explain your answer.
  • The Plastic Bank is an organization that runs, as of 2017, in Haiti and the Philippines. These are two of the poorer countries in the world. Do you think this idea would work in richer countries as well, like Canada? Explain.
  • Ocean plastics are concentrated in certain parts of the world. Try and figure out why this is.
  • Why do you think Greenpeace created the art installation shown in the photo above?
  • For each of the suggestions on how you can limit your use of plastics, think of an argument against it. How would you respond to someone making that argument?
  • Is it possible to prevent plastic pollution? Why or why not?

Want to study marine plastics in more depth?

Register for the Let’s Talk Science Monitoring Marine Plastics Action Project. Click here to learn more.

Learn more

Plastic pollution of the world’s seas and oceans as a contemporary challenge in ocean governance (2018)

Haward, Nature Communications 9

Plastic makes up nearly 70% of all ocean litter (2017)

Kornei, Science

Ways to Rid the World's Oceans of Plastic Trash (2017)

John, TIME

Endangered sea turtle died after eating garbage bag, says rescue group (2016)

MacEachern, CBC

Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean (2015)

Jambeck et al., Science 347


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