The first plastic sandwich bags were introduced in 1957. Nine years later, plastic produce bags were rolled out in grocery stores. It took three decades before the recycling of plastic bags began in 1990, but by 1996 four out of every five grocery bags in the United States were single-use, polyethylene plastic bags. Turn the corner to 2008 and more than 102 billion plastic bags were used in the United States alone.
Over the last ten years, we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century and enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times.
So, where does most of this plastic end up? The ocean — around 80 percent of marine litter originates on land and most of that is plastic. We are treating the ocean like a trash bin with devastating consequences not only to marine life but the entire planetary ecosystem.
How Marine Ecosystems Work
To understand how devastating the current plastics problem is and the effect on the entire marine ecosystem, we must first understand something at the very small end of the spectrum: plankton.
Plankton consist of bacterioplankton (bacteria), virioplankton (viruses), phytoplankton (plants), and zooplankton (animals). Phytoplankton provide the primary food source for the zooplankton and together, they form the base of the oceanic food chain. Much larger zooplankton, fish and mammals all depend on these plankton for their survival. The bacterioplankton recycle and re-mineralize materials and energy within the food chain.
Phytoplankton also play a critical role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere and releasing oxygen into the water, which is part of the process photosynthesis. National Geographic explains that these “one-celled plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and nutrients into complex organic compounds, which form new plant material. This process, known as photosynthesis, is how phytoplankton grow.” Half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis while the other half is produced by photosynthesis on land by trees and other plants.
Phytoplankton and the ocean are therefore considered one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet much in the same way that the Amazon rainforest is. Scripps Institute of Oceanography stated in 2012 that “26 percent of all the carbon released as CO2 from fossil fuel burning .. was absorbed by the oceans.”
At the very large end of the spectrum, whales are just as critically important as phytoplankton. In fact, phytoplankton rely on whales to exist as they are fertilized by whale excrement (view a 30-metre wide “poonado“). Whale excrement is responsible for fertilizing phytoplankton, so the fewer whales there are, the less phytoplankton there is. The less phytoplankton there is, the less zooplankton and fish there are and the less carbon dioxide sequestering that is able to occur — and the worse climate change will become.
The tiny plankton and the large whale are as equally important within the entire marine ecosystem, and both play a critical role in the planetary ecosystem which supports all of our…