Have you ever been tricked by the plastic meals that are sometimes on display in restaurant windows? How about what’s called “dummy cakes” in bakeries, made with Styrofoam and caulk, to showcase wedding-cake-making skills? Or even artificial fruit that’s sometimes used as home or seasonal décor?
If you’ve ever thought plastic “food” was the real thing, you’re far from alone. It happens to marine animals too—with devastating effects. And if you’ve never been tricked and don’t understand how marine animals can mistake plastic for food, try our “Is it or isn’t it marine debris” activity—you’ll discover that differentiating food from plastic is harder than it sounds!
But what about plastic debris that's tiny or even too small to see? The term “microplastic” refers to plastics that are less than 5mm long (about the size of a sesame seed—and smaller!). Those are even harder to avoid, for humans as well as animals. For example, if you eat shellfish, chances are good that you’re eating a side of plastic along with your oysters.
A few years ago, scientists at Belgium’s Ghent University released a sobering study revealing that shellfish lovers may be ingesting up to 11,000 particles of microplastics along with their favorite meals each year. The news isn’t better closer to home. Research conducted on shellfish harvested along the coast of British Columbia in 2016 confirmed the presence of microplastics in the animals’ bodies.
Long story short: if you’re eating shellfish, you’re probably ingesting plastic as well. And, if current trends continue, you may be consuming 780,000 microplastic particles each year by the end of the century. What that means for human health is currently unclear.
It’s estimated that over 150 million tons of plastic are in the ocean today, with an additional eight million tons entering it every year—a garbage-truck’s-worth every minute of every single day. And once that plastic is in the ocean, it doesn’t disappear—it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming the microplastics that are being found in fish and shellfish.
But it’s not all bad news! You can make a difference by taking action to help reduce the flow of plastic into our ocean. Check out some easy ways to reduce plastic use below:
- Choose alternatives to single-use plastics, such as water bottles, straws, cup lids and utensils. Our current “stay home, stay healthy” order is the perfect time to make a commitment to your water bottle and favorite mug/drinking glass!
- Double check, so you don’t double up: Before shopping or ordering online, take a second to take stock of what you have. If you do need to make a purchase, try for products that are made with recycled materials and/or are sourced locally—or buy in bulk to help reduce the waste caused by buying smaller, individual amounts.
- Reduce wardrobe waste: Although it can be tempting to shop for new clothes online when you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, did you know that two pounds of clothing over its entire life cycle creates 22 pounds of greenhouse gases? Figure out if you can reuse clothing items and donate or responsibly dispose of items you no longer need—when businesses reopen, that is (idea: some folks are using old t-shirts to make masks). Can’t resist the urge to shop? Try exploring businesses that sell used clothing online!
- “Green” up your pantry and fridge: Skipping the convenient prepackaged items can save you money and help the environment. Avoid “snack size” packages and aim for products that contain lots of food or drink in a single package/container. Better yet, make your own cookies, puddings, granola bars, popcorn and crackers instead of buying the pre-made kind. It’s kinder to the environment—and a great way to spend time with kids! Plus, homemade is (almost) always yummier, and healthier to boot.
Try picking one or two steps that you can take to reduce your single-use plastic consumption and challenge your friends and family to do the same. It’s incredible what a big difference to our marine environment individual actions can make! Interested in learning more about microplastics? Check out this talk from our own Director of Conservation Programs and Partnerships Dr. Erin Meyer!