The Hidden Plastic That’s Clogging Our Oceans

This spring I was on a cruise off Bermuda, some 650-plus miles off the mainland United States. The sea was azure—the color of the sky on a clear blue day. The water was crystal clear other than a few golden strands of sargassum seaweed.

I was on the boat with an intrepid group of major plastic producers and users (Dow Chemical, Clorox, Nestlé Waters, Coca-Cola), nonprofit organizations (Greenpeace, WWF), social entrepreneurs, investors, funders and academics like me. We were gathered by SoulBuffalo, our host, to experience the ocean plastics challenge firsthand and to use our time confined together at sea to determine what we might do about it.

And there was horror lurking beneath.

What we encountered, though, weren’t massive shakes or mysterious monsters of the deep. We all took our turn snorkeling and had a macabre competition to see how many pieces of plastic we could find stuck in the sargassum. I think the toilet seat won.

Yet the truly devastating experience was this: Remember those crystal-clear waters 650 miles out in the middle of nowhere? We all took turns in a zodiac pulling a small filter behind us for 30 minutes. Each filter came back with 10 plus microplastic bits pulled from the top layer of those beautiful waters. These plastic fragments had not been visible to the naked eye.

Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Every day we are drowning ourselves and unique habitats in plastic waste. Scientists estimate that in coastal countries some 275 million metric tons of waste were generated in 2010, with between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (the equivalent of 8.5 million Toyota Priuses) ending up in the ocean.

Marine life is eating the plastic. I saw a piece of plastic with fish and turtle bites on it.  Whales, seabirds, fish and other sea mammals have been found with intestines full of plastic.

So, what to do? Focus first on getting rid of single use plastics. Already the EU, Canada, China and India, among other countries, and some U.S. states and municipalities have announced various single use plastic bans, and more will come.

And we can do our part as consumers. You know you are supposed to bring that silly canvas bag with you to the grocery store—so do it! Build your personal brand with your choice of water bottle so you don’t have to buy plastic. (I have a Swell bottle that looks like wood. Says it all.) You can carry your own collapsible straw, if sipping things is an important part of your daily routine.

There is also fun new stuff to try. Feel nostalgic for the milkman and his glass bottles? Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Nestlé, Mars, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are working with Terracycle through a new service called Loop, which delivers your shampoo, ice cream and other food and personal care items in durable and attractive packaging that they take away when empty, clean, refill and deliver to your doorstep.

A similar idea is Truman’s Cleaning Supplies. They not only reduce your jumble of noxious cleaners to four non-toxic options but will deliver refills that you mix with water in the original bottle. Bye-bye to lots of plastic bottles with leftover nasty chemicals in them.

Once you start thinking about it and creating a low plastics tolerance discipline, I am sure you will find many ways to cut down on single use plastics.

The motley crew aboard the Bermuda plastics cruise may still find ways to make it easier for you. My favorite idea from the onboard brainstorming was Zero Hero, wherein brands will band together with retailers to create products with zero packaging waste or 100 percent recycling or reuse and refill in-store, enabling consumers to choose to be “zero heroes.” The ocean could use some Avengers. Personally, I am rooting for Aquaman to step up.

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