Controversial Paradise: The rising problem with trash in our oceans

by Lou Guionnet

When thinking of a nice and exotic place to relax during a vacation, you might find your mind wandering towards a picture of white sand, palm trees and turquoise colored waters, a place far away from all of our problems and worries that make up our life. That is what comes to mind when you think of Bali, a beautiful place lost in the middle of Indonesia: perfect for tanning, snorkeling, surfing, and meditating. After you land at the Denpasar airport you head straight to the beach. You approach the turquoise water, the sun is setting and a picturesque scene unfolds before your eyes. As you take it all in, you see a mound of trash waiting for you at the entrance, plastic of every color, three feet high. A bitter surprise, but the beaches are only being cleaned, right? Except that as you walk and look down at this beach of pure white sand, you see bits and pieces of colored plastic everywhere. These three feet tall mounds of trash are scattered all over the beach.

Plastic has overtaken this paradise for decades. Residents breathe in toxic fumes from nearby garbage-burning sites,and humans are not the only ones feeling the urgency of this problem. Turtles, fish, birds, sharks and other creatures on both land and sea are being affected by this epidemic. The infrastructure implemented to combat this problem in Bali is lacking. The main problem  is the lack of money be able to collect trash . The issue also arises from the lack of education on the trash cycle.

We have heard of the trash littering our own shores and our own oceans so much, we almost disregard it because the blaring warnings have become integrated in our everyday lives and faded in the background to become an afterthought. Sadly, trash will not just disappear from our shores overnight. The lack of recognition is dire.

However, the people of Bali have more to worry about than colorful pieces of trash littering their land and shores. They have to think of plowing their fields and going out to fish in unforgiving waters. Giving priority to their jobs and community, few have time to stop and understand that the plastic floating in the sea and the plastic bag in the tree, may be eaten in their next meal. The same scene is repeated all around us,we are not exempt to this complication. The fish we eat and the meat we consume carry pesticides, plastics, and antibiotics

In all of our oceans — which harbors most of our fauna and makes up 75% or our world — there are five main “ocean garbage patches.” Once in these patches, the plastic cannot leave. The problem we face when trying to clean up the gyres is that it would take thousands of years and cost billions of dollars to complete. The plastic spreads across millions of square miles and travels in all directions because of ocean currents. Covering this area using vessels and nets would take time and money which we do not have. The nearest gyre is right between San Francisco and Hawaii, 1,000 miles away from our shores. It harbors 3.5 million tons of trash, ranging from all sizes. The plastic is so dense it could almost be considered land and it is twice the size of Texas. There are 5 gyres in total, scattered all around our planet, killing or harming thousands of animals, and as a result, impacting the environment and our food sources. 

To tackle this inorganic land the Ocean Cleanup leads the way. They have designed a way to collect up to 50% of the Pacific Ocean trash gyres in 5 years, but this is no time to rest. Although they plan on using this plastic and reselling it as sunglasses and water bottles there is still a chance that those products will just find their way back to the gyres. To worsen the situation, in early December 2017 a $180 billion investment was made by fossil fuel companies in plastic. This investment is set to increase plastic production by 40% in the next 10 years. “We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realizing we should use far less of it,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the US Center for International Environmental Law, which has been studying the plastic industry. This is not the only problem. With this increase in plastic production comes the depletion of natural gases which are not reusable. Luckily there are solutions. In some cases scientists have developed materials that could replace plastics, while others have found that adding additives called prodegradant concentrates, the plastics oxidation process, that breaks down the plastic, speeds up. This lets microorganisms digest them and turn them into carbon dioxide, water and biomass. Thus, creating no harmful residue.

In the U.S., nearly all purchases involve plastic bags, about 1 billion are created and distributed to markets each year. Less than 1% are recycled, and most will end up as part of the 300,000 tons of plastic in U.S. landfills or on roads, cities, and towns. Eventually, these plastics find their way to the oceans and into different mammal’s stomachs, including those of humans. Plastic bags could now be considered the most dangerous prey to sea turtles and birds since they predate on jellyfish which plastic bags resemble greatly. One way we could help is to ban red plastic, as this color of plastic is found in more abundance than others because it reminds sea animals of plankton or shrimp, and thus creates more confusion for the mammals. Since the animals ingest these bits and pieces of plastic, they fill their stomachs and thus feel full. Animals then starve themselves to death because of this false signal they are receiving and their bodies subsequently wash up on our shores. 

Those who can afford to take vacations in paradisiacal places may not realized that  the workers at these beautiful beach villas and resorts comb the beaches daily to collect plastic washing up on their shores. Fortunately this has not been completely brushed under the rug and five main associations have surfaced, BYE BYE PLASTIC BAGS, Bali Beach Clean Up (BBCU), AVANI, and ECOBALI RECYCLING. They help by through communal beach cleanings or educating the people of the island, but this is a worldwide problem.  This problem affects you even if you do not live near the sea or if you haven’t seen it happening, it will reach you since you are a part of it. This is a new cycle we have created, and we contribute to it from the moment one buys a plastic bag to the fish in your plate. At this moment, the plastic cycle moves along. Are you ready to stop it?

Want to help? Visit:

The Ocean Cleanup

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Save our Shores