J500 Media and the Environment

Plastic and Plankton and Peril, oh my! by meganr21

I grew up about 5 miles from the ocean and I can count the number of times I went to the beach on one hand. Between the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant overflowing into the ocean during heavy rains and all the litter, it’s never been an appealing place to spend the day. Who wants to go swimming with plastic bottles and packaging? Certainly not me.


Plastic has been hailed the ‘lubricant of globalization’ because it’s a vapor and moisture barrier that enables safe shipment of products around the world. The same qualities that make plastics so great for trade make them virtually indestructible, so when they find their way into the ocean they’re there to stay.

A sea turtle with a plastic ring around its waist.

A sea turtle with a plastic ring around its waist.


Plastics don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade meaning that UV light from the sun makes plastic brittle so it breaks into pieces that can look like natural prey. Plastics like PCB and DDE are toxic so anything that eats jellyfish is also consuming potentially lethal plastics.


Plastics pose and even sinister threat than interrupting the food chain. A survey done off the coast of California found that in some areas the plastic to plankton ratios were 40:1 or even higher. So what’s the big deal?


Trash in the ocean shades the surface and only a certain amount of solar energy gets down into the ocean. Plankton act as a carbon sink (something that stores more carbon dioxide than it releases, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions) and require sunlight to bloom and grow. Too much shade means fewer plankton and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


86% of all ocean debris is plastic. As a whole we need to work harder to protect the environment, not only to maintain the integrity of our oceans but to save ourselves and our future.


Megan Richards


Image credits: © Dino Ferri/Audobon Institute and Wildcoast



3 Comments so far
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Even before Baton Rouge started a recycling program, I remember being told that you have to cut up 6-pack rings so they’d not get caught around animal’s throats. Those of us doing that (and recycling and not littering) most likely agree with you, but what do you see as being a solution that will reach a wider audience? (In other words, what do you think we can do to reach beyond the “choir”?)

Comment by marybethw

I think that the big key to this is education and making it count to people. Changing behaviors is hard and it only happens incrementally – it is next to impossible to make giant leaps in general. The way to get the message out is to look at the effects not on animals and the ocean but on people specifically – closing beaches down, showing how the major increase in CO2 levels will affect people – make it personal because if it’s not the masses won’t get on board.

Comment by meganr21

Wow. Is that turtle/tortoise photo un-edited? It’s certainly not a sea turtle.

I agree with Meganr21 that education is important, but it is not enough. I, and many others, have been working on climate change education and encouraging climate protection for years with little impact on emissions. What helped? The biggest help came from the sharp increase in gasoline prices in 2008. We need to find ways to put economic prices on damaging activities (burning fossil fuels, using excessive packaging, etc, etc)–some say “internalize the externalities” or “pay for the hidden costs.” One smart person quipped that it would be like putting the end of cars’ tailpipes inside the car. If we did that, people would suddenly be willing to pay for excellent exhaust systems, but because we put it into the atmosphere, we don’t “see” the costs. Of course, we also need to consider social justice and avoid placing added burdens onto poor and disadvantaged individuals.

Education is important, critical even, but it’s not sufficient.

Comment by JohncBoston

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