By Donia Moore, San Clemente Watershed Task Force
San Clemente may soon follow the communities of Laguna Beach and Dana Point in enacting a ban on plastic, single-use bags. Our City Council is establishing priorities for 2013 and a similar ban for San Clemente is under consideration.
There is a lot of information, both pro and con (yes–there are arguments against the ban) circulating. Yes, the bags are ugly in the environment. Yes, they are responsible for injuries and death of marine life. And yes, their demise may end up costing us ten cents per reusable bag at the grocery store if we forget to bring our own.
The Clean Ocean Project, supported by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, approaches the problem of plastic bags from a scientific point of view. There are serious repercussions of using petroleum-based plastics irresponsibly, such as ending up in a gyre.
What is a gyre? A gyre is a large-scale circular feature made up of ocean currents that spiral around a central point. This creates a whirlpool effect that pushes water and marine plastic debris to its center. As plastic enters the marine environment through our watersheds or trash, currents collect and transport it like a giant ocean conveyor belt loaded with garbage bound for the North Pacific Gyre, which is where our little bit of paradise is located.
There are five major gyres in the world: the North and South Pacific subtropical gyres; the North and South Atlantic subtropical gyres; and the Indian Ocean subtropical gyre. Because more data has been collected in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, scientists have a better understanding of marine plastics issues and impacts on the environment in this area. It goes far beyond the plastic bags we see floating in the ocean or washing up on our beaches.
Plastic and toxins in the food web: Floating plastic breaks up into ever-smaller pieces. It begins to make its way into the marine food web. Many marine animals mistake these small, colorful pieces of plastic for food and ingest them. If the plastic cannot pass through the animals’ digestive system, it fills their stomachs with garbage that has no nutritional value, and with no room for its natural food, they can slowly starve to death. The smaller pieces of plastic eventually, over time, become plastic dust, which never biodegrades, and retains all of its original chemical compounds. Scientists have determined that all the plastic ever made, unless incinerated, remains in the environment.
As plastic builds up in the food chain, carrying with it increasing amounts of toxins, there is the potential that it could reach the fish and seafood that we consume, because everything that they have consumed, we, too, consume. There is growing evidence that toxins associated with plastic particles in the gyre are responsible for an increase in health problems in humans such as endocrine cancers, brain damage, and reproductive and cardiovascular damage.
The San Clemente Watershed Task Force is a citizen’s group that works to reduce litter and pollutants ending up on the beach and area watersheds.