Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we live on a small blue dot floating through space. The oceans and seas cover 71% of the Earth’s surface and are vital for our sheer survival. Not only are they our greatest source of biodiversity, but they also regulate our climate, produce more oxygen than all of the trees combined and store 50 times more CO2 than our atmosphere. Besides that, marine environments are also a crucial source of food, medicine, and income all over the world (National Ocean Service, 2020). But despite all of this, human actions are degrading the seas more and more each day. We all need to realise how important the oceans are and take action. Each and every one of us. Here are a few simple ways you can contribute to prevent ocean pollution:
1. Lower your carbon footprint
The oceans are disproportionately absorbing greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon, leading to increased ocean temperatures and acidification. This means the water’s oxygen saturation and pH levels are changing, affecting ecosystems, such as coral reefs. “Why is that bad?”, you may wonder. Well, all ecosystems are highly fragile and even the smallest change can ruin a balance that was established over thousands of years. Even just the slightest change in ocean acidification and temperature increase has detrimental effects on biodiversity, storm patterns and intensity, etc. (IUCN, 2021).
For instance, more than half of the world’s warm water coral reefs have already been destroyed. Scientists estimate that – as a direct result of climate change – there will be none left by 2050 (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2017).
Therefore lowering your general carbon footprint is a crucial first step in preventing ocean degradation and pollution. You know the drill: Drive less, use energy-efficient appliances, purchase fewer items, stick to mainly plant-based foot, etc. If you’re curious about your current carbon footprint, check out this website, which lets you calculate it.
2. Produce less trash & be mindful of where it ends up
I’m sure you’re already well aware of this, but let me just say it again. The seven seas are full of trash. It’s impossible to say exactly how much it is, but estimates state that 8 million tons of trash are currently floating in the ocean. More is added every minute.
Let’s look at an example. The most common form of litter in our oceans is cigarette butts. Volunteers collect millions of them each year, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic-like material that breaks down into tiny pieces rather than decompose. Moreover, they are toxic and contain arsenic, nicotine, and heavy metals, which are extremely harmful towards marine environments (NOS, 2020). A German study found that even a single cigarette butt contaminates up to 1000 litres of water (Green et al., 2014).
I’m not saying that you have to commit to an entirely zero-waste lifestyle, but relying on recycling is not enough. Unfortunately, wealthy nations export huge amounts of trash. Generally, it ends up in Southeast Asia, where it is either being burned or ends up in local waterways. Eventually it ends up in the oceans, where most of it accumulates in “ocean gyres” (large roaring ocean currents). These contain garbage patches of varying sizes, such as the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Borelle).
3. Plastic: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle
This topic directly follows the previous point, but plastic truly deserves its own mention in preventing ocean pollution. When plastic was first used in the 1960’s it was seen as a miracle material *shakes head*. If only we had known the pandora’s box we were opening. Countless consumer and industrial products now contain plastic, but it is not biodegradable. What does that means? Plastic does not disintegrate and instead breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, called micro-plastic.
“So let’s recycle all of it”, you may think. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. Did you know that only 10% of plastic is recycled and that many types of plastic can’t even be recycled? Therefore, we need to find a more holistic approach for this issue, starting with lowering the production and consumption of plastic items:
- refuse – say no to disposable single-use plastic, such as straws and items wrapped in plastic.
- reduce – avoid buying goods that are wrapped in excessive plastic or have plastic parts.
- reuse – never use an item only once & instead bags, bottles, cutlery, containers etc. again and again.
- recycle – give a plastic item a potential new life. This should be the LAST resort though, whenever you cant refuse, reduce or reuse. (PPC, 2020)
4. Respect marine environments
Whenever you are in and around the ocean, there are numerous things you should consider. Most importantly though, you should not leave trash nor interfere with wildlife, corals, etc. That means you should never touch corals nor take anything out of the the ocean with you. This also includes any souvenirs or jewellery you buy.
Additionally, whenever you’re on a kayak, boat, etc. never throw anything overboard (even organic waste). And if you’re ever in the situation of having to poop, make sure to be at least 50m away from the shore and bury your poop in a hole. (Sorry, that advice came without a warning! haha – I hope you’ll remember it though.)
Furthermore, you should make sure to choose the most sustainable recreational activity. I’m not saying you shouldn’t book a boat trip on your next beach vacay. However, you should do some research on what local businesses do to support marine environments and choose to spend you money accordingly. If you really want to go on a cruise doing prior research is especially important. In general, cruise companies are known to be absolutely unsustainable. Each day the average cruise ship generates over 100.000 litres of sewage, almost 1 million litres of further waste water, exhaust emissions equivalent to 12.000 cars, etc. (Sustainable Tourism).
5. Mind your seafood choices
Fishers catch up to 3 trillion fish each year. That’s an immensee problem. Our high levels of seafood consumption are polluting the oceans. Yes, those are the same marine animals we want to protect by limiting our plastic consumption.
According to National Geographic synthetic fishing nets make up half of the mass of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, around 40% of animals that’d up in fishing nets are “bycatch”. Fishers often toss these animals back into the seas (injured or already dead) (Oceana). This further harms ecosystems as well as results in countless pointless deaths. You don’t need to be an animal welfare activist or vegan to acknowledge how horrible that is.
It’s also important to remember the impact human actions have on the quality of seafood and on our own health. Heavy metals and other contaminants (due to oil spills, fertilisers, etc.) accumulate in the seafood us humans eat. At the same time, chemicals also accumulate in marine animals as a result of the trash they consume. All of this ends up on plates around the world. Remember all of those cigarette butts? Yuck. As a result, there are numerous potential health risks, including oxidative stress, neurotoxic effects, endocrine disruption, thyroid damage, and cancer (Villines, 2020).
So what can you do? Eat less seafood and make sustainable seafood choices. What this means is that you should find out about the various Seafood certifications, such as the MSC, and what they entail. Furthermore, not all types of fish/ seafood are equally unsustainable. I find that the website of the marine conservation society is very helpful in finding out how sustainable each species really is. If you eat seafood regularly you may even want to download their free Good Fish Guide app.
6. Choose non-toxic chemicals
As explained in my post on the Leave No Trace Principles, we should be mindful of the chemicals we use – whether we are out in nature or at home. This applies to personal toiletries (shampoo, shower gels, sunscreen, toothpaste, etc.) as well as cleaning detergents (dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, all-purpose cleaner). All of these affect marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs. Therefore, there are companies offering coral-friendly sunscreen as well as other items that are pH-neutral, biodegradable and free of micro-plastics. “But aren’t these items more expensive, Hannah?” – Yes, they are. However, they make a big difference in preventing ocean pollution and isn’t that why you’re reading this article? Gotcha!
7. Make organic food choices
Correct. What happens on land strongly affects the oceans. Crop and livestock farms are a huge factor in degrading marine environments. Even if they are located far away from shores they cause “non-point source pollution”. Often fertilisers and livestock manure are not managed properly and runoff into the oceans, for example due to rainfall. This is detrimental, as this leads to an increase of nitrogen and phosphorus concentration (UN, 2016).
As previously mentioned, ecosystems are highly fragile and even small changes can have detrimental effects. A high concentration of these nutrients can stimulate rapid algae bloom, which consumes vast amounts of oxygen. Consequently, less oxygen is available in the ecosystems, leading to “hypoxia”. As a result, flora and fauna will either die or leave the affected area, which will become a dead zone. Moreover, these nutrients also negatively affect the communication, procreation habits, etc. of many species (NOAA).
So what should you do? Once again, your choices as a consumer can make all the difference. Support farmers that use the right fertilisers and properly recycle nutrient sources, such as manure. Depending on where you live, there’s a variety of eco labels that consider these factors. However, as a a consumer it is often quite difficult to figure out what these labels truly mean. When in doubt, I suggest eating organic and as plant-based as possible. If you want to find out more about this topic I suggest watching the documentary Cowspiracy.
8. Support organisations trying to protect the oceans
There is a wide variety of organisations working on projects to prevent ocean pollution and degradation. The following are just two examples:
THE OCEAN CLEANUP is a non-profit organisation working on cleaning up our oceans. They develop technologies that prevents the inflow of trash into the oceans as well as collects the plastic that’s already floating around in them. TOC’s goal is a plastic free ocean by 2050. You can support this mission by donating, becoming a partner or purchasing merchandise made from ocean plastic. What a cool concept!
Another interesting organisation is called The Plastic Pollution Coalition. You can support their mission by signing petitions, donating, and joining the coalition as an active member. Most importantly, you can take the pledge to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle plastic.
I suggest finding out which local or national institutions are working to protect marine environments and supporting them. You could volunteer to do hands-on work, give financial support, or work on advocacy (see below).
9. Be vocal about marine conservation & preventing ocean pollution
Individual actions matter, but so does legislation. You can make a positive impact on our seven seas by speaking up in your local community. Moreover, you could contact local representatives to let them know that this matter is important to you. Impacting legislation can make a big change. For instance, governments could offer subsidies and research grants to businesses and scientists creating plant-based seafood alternatives.
Additionally, you should speak up if you see a business or an individual polluting the ocean. They may not know any better or they may not even realise. If you see a restaurant offering an endangered species of fish, you know what to do. If someone is flicking a cigarette butt into a river, you know what to say.
Lastly, SPEAK TO EVERYONE about why ocean conservation matters. I mean it. You should talk to your friends and family, colleagues, uni friends, professors, etc. Educate those around you and get them involved.
I hope this blog post has been helpful and insightful for you. In case you have any more questions on this topic or anything else, please leave a comment or shoot me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org <3
I can’t wait to hear from you!