Phil Kramer is the director of The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program. The Conservancy is working with countries across the region to meet the promise of the Caribbean Challenge. If successful, the Challenge will place more than 21 million acres of ocean, beaches, coral reefs and mangroves into national parks and protected areas.

After so many years as a marine scientist, I’m no longer surprised at the things that wash ashore on beaches around the world.

Unfortunately, 90 percent of those things are man-made and shouldn’t be there.

Most of it has – unfortunately – come to be expected: derelict fishing equipment, disposable plastic bottles, plastic bags, cigarette butts, bits of unidentifiable plastic, Styrofoam.

All of it is deadly to marine animals – whales, sharks, sea turtles and sea birds.

Some of the trash is ironic (a child’s backpack I spotted, emblazoned with Marlin and Dory from the move Finding Nemo, comes immediately to mind). Some of it is famous, like the Nike shoes (swept overboard from a cargo ship) that were still wearable after bobbing in the ocean for 3 years. (The average athletic shoe can float for 10 years.)

Much of our trash seems to end up accumulating in large gyres in the Pacific Ocean. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” between Hawaii and California is the size of Texas and the biggest threat to nesting albatrosses and their chicks on remote atolls of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Imagine: The entire state of Texas as a landfill. (Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Don’t Mess with Texas.”)

National Geographic recently reported the discovery of the “Atlantic Garbage Patch.” It covers 1,000 miles off the East Coast of the United States. Much of the debris is tiny bits of discarded plastic and trash; most of it weighs less than a paperclip and floats near the surface. Imagine what it must be like for a baby loggerhead sea turtle making his way out to the Atlantic and having to come up for air in that plastic soup.

Are you depressed yet?  I’m not. Sad, yes. Depressed, no.

For one thing, depression rarely motivates people to actually do something about the problem that’s depressing them. They watch TV instead.

For another, I don’t think we have to live like this. Sometimes when a problem seems so, well, global, we think there’s nothing we can do.

But this is actually a problem where every individual’s actions matter. So, good news: If you use plastic, you have the power to change the world in one easy step.

Step 1: Stop using so much plastic. Go with reusable shopping bags and drinking bottles, instead.

It’s a simple matter of volume:

  • Consider all of the people in your neighborhood who shop.
  • Now consider what would happen if everyone committed to using reusable bags and drinking bottles.
  • Now think of everyone in your town, your city, your state, your country, your continent, your world — all of them doing what you’re doing….That is a tremendous amount of disposable plastic that never has the opportunity to escape and wreak havoc on marine life.

All because people made a simple change to their daily lives. Our choices matter. Each of us has more power to affect our world — for good and for bad — than we know.

I know, because I’ve seen it.

(Image Credit: Jonrawlinson/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

 

 

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