Are you doing your part for our ecology. You have trash cans at home that are designated for trash and recycling and use appropriate containers for yard waste. Do you do it because garbage companies require you to do so. Still, others do it because they realize that it is important to the survival of this planet. Whether you do so grudgingly or do it with an honest desire, recycling has become a part of our daily life. While it is commendable that you are doing your part at home, what about when you are on or near the waters?
As a snorkeler, I am amazed and disheartened at how much of this trash gets into the water. Not only in the water but on the bottom and on the reef itself. This trash does not only detract from the beauty of the underwater world, it also damages and most times kills it. This may range from minor to catastrophic. The oceans of the world have been continually used as the dumping ground for the inhabitants of this planet. Whether it is the paper napkin that accidentally blew away during a beach picnic or the intentional dumping of toxic waste, each incident does have it's impact on the underwater world. While these incidences add up the negative consequences to the marine environment multiply.
|Paper Towel||2-4 Weeks|
|Cotton Gloves||1-5 Months|
|Apple Core||2 Months|
|Cardboard Box||2 Months|
|Cotton Rope||3-14 Months|
|Waxed Milk Carton||3 Months|
|Degradable Beverage Holder||6 Months|
|Biodegradable Diaper||1 Year|
|Wool Gloves||1 Year|
|Painted Wood Stick||13 Years|
|Styrofoam Cup||50 Years|
|Styrofoam Buoy||80 Years|
|Aluminum Can||200 Years|
|Plastic Beverage Holder||400 Years|
|Plastic Bottle||450 Years|
|Monofilament Fishing Line||600 Years|
Shelves in supermarkets have many products whose containers are biodegradable or can be recycled. The ecology conscious often make sure that the products they are purchasing are marked as such, so they feel that they are doing their part for this world. While the concept of recycling is a pretty simple one to grasp, the concept of biodegradability is a little bit more complex and can be a bit misleading in some respects.
If something is listed as being biodegradable, it means that it can be consumed by organisms in the environment which, in turn, break them down into compounds that are commonly found in nature. In order for these organisms to effectively do their job, there needs to be oxygen, light and water and because microorganisms reproduce at a faster rate when it is warmer, temperature is also an important factor. With all of this in place the object is ready to be broken down. The only factor left that needs to be taken into account is the time that it takes for these microorganisms to complete their task.
The napkin that accidentally blew a way during the picnic to fully biodegrade in the water (assuming that all ingredients for biodegradation were present) the process would take anywhere from 2-4 weeks. Newspaper takes approximately 6 weeks for the process while a cardboard box can take up to 2 months. Paper according to some statistics ranks a mere 29% with respect to being one of the most common objects used in littering. The highest percentage is fast food waste coming in at 33%. Other common items include aluminum at 28%, glass at 6% and plastic at 2%. One statistic dated January 6, 2013 lists the total amount of litter dumped into the ocean at 9 billion tons a year.
The chart on the bottom left is from a poster that was created by Mote Marine Laboratory which is a non-profit organization, titled "Marine Debris Biodegradation Time Line." It includes representations of common debris found on, in and under the water with the times that it takes to biodegrade. (if you are ever in the Sarasota Florida area, please stop by the Lab as it has a great aquarium and activities to participate in.)
While it is good that these items are subject to biodegradation, the time it takes them to do so is lengthy. The problem with this debris is the damage it does to the marine life during this time. The items that sink can land on delicate corals basically smothering them. Any fishing line or rope items can cause entanglement issues for both fish and marine mammals. The plastic 6-pack beverage holder rings have caused many serious issues with marine birds and marine life in general.
One must remember that with regard to the ingredients and conditions needed for the biodegradation process are not found in in the deeper parts of the ocean. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute completed an extensive study that involved going through 18,000 hours of underwater video that they had collected from underwater remote controlled vehicles (commonly called ROVs). The deepest being around 13,124 feet (4,000 meters) which is equivalent to just under 2 and 1/2 miles below the waters surface. This trash contains items that are consdidered to be biodegradable but because the ingredients and conditions needed to begin the process are not present, they remain as they were when they first arrived at their resting place. Their sudy was over a 22 year period and included debris information from Vancouver Island to the Gulf of California. Some information from as far west as Hawaii was also included in the study. Their most recent paper concentrated on the Monterey Bay area itself.
There are organizations that are taking a proactive approach with regard the marine debris problem. Recycling programs for monofilament fishing line and discarded fishing nets have been in place for awhile and there are many volunteer organizations which offer clean up events and tips for having clean up events. Operators of snorkeling tours are even having clean up events to do their part as well. It is time to take ownership and responsibility for our actions and start caring for the planet that cares of us.