I have been a naïve consumer. Plastic shower curtains. Thermometers. Pine nuts. I only recently learned that my purchasing decisions were, and are, causing mayhem in the ocean.
You see, the ships that deliver goods from other continents traverse the ocean, in which reside marine mammals: orcas, blue whales, dolphins, to name a few. Sounds from ships lessen communication between these ocean dwellers, and as a result, they are are killed. All marine mammals must surface to breathe, and surface-active mammals are at the greatest risk of harm from encounters with hulls and propellers.
As a result of the massive noise pollution caused by the propellers on cargo vessels, and reverberations rippling out from the hulls, water is suddenly and profoundly less able to carry the important messages communicated between the cetaceans who call the ocean home. (See Lynda Mapes’ “Orcas: Shared Waters, Shared Home” and listen to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Soundscape Listening Room).
Messages go unheard between calves and mothers, brothers and sisters, orphans and aunties. Ship strikes occur when vessels are en route to harbors and when crossing known migratory paths. When these sea-dwelling creatures come up to breathe, they do so at risk of being pummeled by the hulls of cargo ships.
The Center for Biological Diversity puts it this way: “Vessel strikes are the biggest source of human-caused mortality to most large whales on the U.S. West Coast, followed closely by fishing gear entanglements…Scientists estimate that 80 whales die from ship strikes each year on the U.S. West Coast, although records of dead whales injured by ship strikes are less frequent because the carcasses may sink to the bottom of the ocean or wash ashore on remote beaches.”
Sharks, too, are struck by commercial cargo traffic. A study in Australia reports, “Almost one-fifth of the whale sharks documented showed major scarring or fin amputations. While some scars were from predator bites, most were the marks of blunt trauma, lacerations, or amputations arising from encounters with ships. The number of major injuries recorded in 2012 and 2013 was almost doubled that of 2011.”
There are agreements and proposals to slow down or to seasonally re-route the ships when they’re crossing known migratory paths, and to the extent possible, avoid high-density areas of migrating cetaceans, but as we’ve not yet figured out how to move whales and their allies out of harm’s way, the onus lies strictly in the human realm. Technology can solve some of these issues. Regulations can also help. For example, in 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service worked to codify the Ship Strike Rule in the North Atlantic Ocean, helping to protect right whales.
Electric cars are a complicated player in the calculus of this equation. Dredging the ocean floor for valuable raw materials for electric cars destroys marine neighborhoods that are already damaged by changing water temperatures, and being compromised by chemical pollution that decreases the availability of nourishment.
And then there are single-use plastics. Monterey Bay Aquarium has been educating the public about this issue for years.
I bring home produce packed in clamshell containers. It is now believed we ingest plastic with our food. The cascade of pollution from raw materials sourcing through production to distribution to consumption for single-use plastics is hard to fathom.
I used to think that recycling would offset the negative impact of plastics. But it turns out that we’re not recycling as much as we think.
The Government Accountability Office published a report in December 2020:
“Based on GAO analysis of stakeholder views, five cross-cutting challenges affect the U.S. recycling system: (1) contamination of recyclables; (2) low collection of recyclables; (3) limited market demand for recyclables; (4) low profitability for operating recycling programs; and (5) limited information to support decision-making about recycling. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent data show that less than a quarter of the waste generated in the United States is collected for recycling (69 million of 292 million tons)” (page 1).
“For decades, the U.S. recycling industry has relied on selling recyclables in international markets to help manage our nation’s municipal waste. For example, from 2010 to 2017, the United States exported an average of $3.3 billion per year of waste paper for recycling—accounting for 36 percent of the world’s waste paper exports in 2017—and China was the main waste paper destination for U.S. exports, averaging 60 percent of the exports over this period.” (page 6.)
The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) argues it this way:
“The idea of recycling plastic products is largely a scam propagated by the plastics industry which wants to shift the burden of cleaning up their awful products to the general public. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. plastic recycling rate is eight percent, with more than 90 percent of plastics in the United States buried, burned, or simply discarded into the environment.”
Walking the shores of Southern California beaches, we pick up Styrofoam, plastic straws, plastic bottles and caps, beach toys, six-pack bottle holders, marine-grade rope, clam shell packaging and tampon applicators, among other items.
This is the planet’s cry for help. Can we buy goods from shippers who say they adhere to marine safety, akin to the Forest Stewardship Council audits verifying that wood is sustainably grown and harvested? Can we buy food in packages that don’t degrade the environment, harm animals and negatively impact our bodies? Can our vastly hyper-consumer society get by with less acquisitiveness?
As a child, my birthday parties included smooshed banana sandwiches. My mom dampened a large tea towel and draped it over the treats, keeping the bread moist until the guests arrived. My grandmother, born in 1899, saved every glass jar and lid which came through her pantry, storing food staples for cooking days and putting up produce for enjoyment in other seasons. Might some of the tips which our ancestors used provide us with a hand-hold?
It’s a conversation worth having. For the planet, for ourselves.