More Than Just Plastic: The Different Types of Ocean Pollution

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Reportedly, 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, and 14 million tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans, making up 80% of all ocean trash. Ocean plastic pollution has even caused the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), a huge collection of marine litter found in the Pacific Ocean. Scientists estimate that 46% of the litter is made up of synthetic fishing nets.

The issue of plastic pollution has been amplified by the media, and one might assume that this is the only issue that our oceans face. Let’s look at four main sources of ocean pollution, including plastic pollution, and how you can help alleviate the problem.

Plastic Pollution

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Plastic pollution is a serious environmental issue characterized by improper waste management of plastic. In addition to directly throwing trash in the ocean and beaches, rivers and other polluted waterways deposit plastic waste into the ocean as they drain there. Common plastic pollutants include cigarette butts, plastic packaging, plastic straws, plastic bottle caps and plastic stirrers.

Plastic pollution has resulted in the death and serious wounding of marine life. The National Geographic reports on a case in which a dead sperm whale washed up on the beach in eastern Indonesia. It was found with 13 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach — 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, over 1,000 pieces of string, two flip-flops and some plastic bottles.

In a different case, a team of researchers in Costa Rica removed a 12-centimeter plastic straw from an Olive Ridley turtle’s nostril. There are records of albatross chicks feeding on plastic. Worse still, scientists in Hawaii found out that 89% of dead adult birds, and 97% of dead Laysan albatross chicks, had stomachs filled with plastic. There’s also the iconic image taken by Justin Hoffman of a seahorse using a plastic cotton swab to ride ocean currents.

Despite the grim picture, individuals and governments are responding to the plastic pollution crisis. At an individual level, there are options for greener alternatives to everyday items. For example, plastic cotton swabs and plastic toothbrushes have alternatives. You can now opt for no straw or use a reusable straw such as a metal straw or bamboo straw. Some countries, such as Kenya, Thailand, Rwanda, Canada and the United Kingdom, and some states in the United States have banned some plastic items. 

Light Pollution

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Artificial light enables humans to improve the economy by providing visibility and security at night. As a result, we now have cities and areas that operate as 24-hour economies. While this is beneficial to the human species, marine life suffers from the resultant light pollution.

Light pollution is defined as using artificial lights to brighten the night sky, causing disruption of natural processes and obstructing the clear observation of planets and stars.

Living things operate on a circadian rhythm, also known as the sleep-wake cycle. This is a natural process for a living thing every 24-hours that determines its mental, physical and behavioral changes. This process is a response to darkness and light, affecting different species. 

An increasingly lit up world, especially in urban areas surrounding marine environments, affects marine life. Artificial light at night penetrates the water and confuses marine life, disrupting the circadian rhythm. One of the most affected species is sea turtles. In addition to the risk of ingesting plastic, their population is now affected by reproduction difficulties.

Researchers report that artificial lighting reduces the nesting success of loggerhead turtles by 20%. Artificial light causes loggerhead turtles to make fewer nesting attempts, and when they do, their return to sea is a difficult one because the numerous lights, especially colored ones, force them to lose sea orientation. Additionally, their offspring have a lower survival rate because light pollution encourages the activity of predators.

To solve this issue, several organizations are working towards a darker and more natural sky at night. Businesses and individuals are encouraged to reduce their night light emissions by drawing curtains and blinds to keep the light in buildings. Outdoor lighting is discouraged unless very necessary. Drivers can opt to use dim lighting when traveling at night, and homeowners can choose to install motion detectors which only light up when a disturbance is experienced. 

Noise pollution

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A busy, well-lit area experiences a bustle of activities. This creates a new problem: noise pollution. Noise pollution is an environmental problem consisting of annoying and harmful levels of noise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), any noise above 65 decibels (dB) is noise pollution. Noise exceeding 70dB is harmful, and anything above 120 dB is painful.

In the marine environment, noise pollution is caused by sounds made by oil rigs, seismic surveys, ships and sonar devices. These loud noises are disruptive to marine animals, especially those that use echolocation to navigate the water. Through echolocation, animals such as whales and dolphins use sound waves to locate distant or invisible prey by sending back sound waves. These animals get stressed by noise pollution because they have a harder time locating prey, communicating with each other, finding mates and hiding from predators.

Chemical/Nutrient Pollution

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The toxin-free products movement goes hand-in-hand with the plastic-free movement. Toxin-free products are not only great for human health but also for ocean health. Toxins and chemicals released in excessive amounts in the environment cause chemical or nutrient pollution.

We pollute the ocean through agricultural runoff, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, toxic pesticides and herbicides, industrial wastewater releases, and toxic home products released into the sewage system, which are carried by rivers into the ocean. Oil spills are also notorious pollutants. 

Research studies show that chemical and nutrient pollutants affect marine life by disrupting their fertility, immunity, development and survival. A report by the International Pollutants Elimination Network and the National Toxics Network (IPEN) shows the mortality of crustaceans such as crayfish and shrimp when exposed to toxic insecticides like fipronil. 

You can make an individual choice to buy only toxin-free products that are safe for soil and water. Embrace organically produced food, and only buy from industries that have a reputation for treating their wastewater. Governments are also helping by banning harmful chemicals such as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). 

Humans have been dumping waste in the ocean for centuries now. Clearing out plastic and toxic chemicals, and reducing noise and light pollution, may seem like an uphill task, but there’s hope. We are all encouraged to act now by changing our behavior and embracing more environmentally conscious practices while dealing with the damage already caused.