By Conservancy of Southwest Florida Volunteer Bill Rhodes
Frequently, when a Conservancy of Southwest Florida docent or naturalist speaks with guests, he or she will mention our mission, which is “to protect Southwest Florida’s unique natural environment and quality of life … now and forever”.
When we talk about birds found injured on our highways, we remind people how food litter (think banana peels or apple cores), carelessly thrown out car windows can attract mice and other small animals. These then attract birds of prey, which become easy targets to be struck by a passing car or truck.
Sea turtles will mistake empty plastic bags floating in the ocean as jellyfish, a favorite snack. Once ingested, these bags will seriously harm or kill the turtle. We have a small exhibit near the patch reef tank in the Dalton Discovery Center that illustrates just how bad the plastic pollution problem has become. Plastic bottles, cups, lids, straws, jugs, monofilament fishing line — a vast array of plastic products — are floating in our oceans, and these plastics do not readily break down or degrade. In fact, it can take about 500 years for a soda bottle in the ocean to completely decompose.
Just how bad is plastic pollution in our oceans? Shocking pictures of debris, floating in the oceans in huge mats of plastic waste, increasingly make the news. But, it’s not just what you can see that is worrisome. Two recent studies in Europe, one examining fish and the other shellfish, all destined for the dinner table, found that ‘micro-plastics’ — tiny, microscopic beads of plastic that remain after years of degradation — were found in one third of the fish and 100% of the mussels.
In other words, plastic pollution in the seas is so bad that the fish you eat are very likely to contain discarded plastic. While the immediate health threat to us is small, as little of those plastics are absorbed, the consequences over a long period of time are not well known.
What can you do to help? The obvious answer is to be certain to not leave any plastic (or, in fact any other) materials behind — don’t throw waste out of your car window; don’t leave plastics on the ground or in the water, and never throw anything into a storm drain. It is surprising how many people do not understand that storm sewers will drain into local waterways and carry whatever is thrown into them directly into our rivers, bays and oceans.
The less obvious, but perhaps more important, answer is to simply be aware of the problem that plastics can cause as environmental pollutants, advocate for using less and less of them in our consumable products, and of, course, recycle rather than discard.