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January 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 33, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Plastic is Suffocating the Ocean

and the dive industry must share the blame

from the January, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As a diver, you have no doubt seen plastic under the water, an example of the ecological damage our consumer society inflicts upon the environment, especially the ocean. You may have seen Craig Leeson's documentary, A Plastic Ocean, and been appalled at the harrowing images that follow relentlessly one after the other.

It's not the plastic snorkel you accidentally drop that's the real problem, it's the disposable plastic bag that it came in.

As Leeson points out, manufacturers love plastic because they can can use it for anything -- look at all the plastic on a BCD -- and it is durable. However, that durability is equally terrible for the same reason. Especially, when one realizes that a lot of plastic is intended only for a single use before it is discarded. A Styrofoam cup takes 50 years to biodegrade whereas a plastic bottle can take 450 years. Nylon fishing line can last up to 600 years in the ocean. It's not the plastic snorkel you accidentally drop that's the real problem, it's the disposable plastic bag that it came in.

The world produces more than 300 million tons of plastic every year, and that, plus all the plastic ever produced still remains on our planet in one form or another. Production will triple by 2050, and then, by weight, there will be as much plastic in the ocean as there are fish. It's as if a large garbage truck backs up to the ocean every minute of every day, dumping plastic.

Ocean gyres, the circulating ocean currents, cause the plastic to form great unnatural islands. Marine life, from the smallest creature to great whales, ingests the plastic -- and dies. Turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, their staple diet. Thousands of seabirds, like shearwaters and albatross, inadvertently feed on plastic, even bringing it back to their chicks, which then die before they even get a chance to fledge. The beaches of what once were uninhabited paradise islands are awash in discarded plastic.

Scientists from Newcastle University tested crustaceans at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, known as Challenger Deep, 10,890 meters (35,730 feet) below sea level. Each creature had ingested some form of humanmade material, including the plastics nylon, PVC, and PVA. Reported in the British Independent newspaper, Dr. Alan Jamieson, professor in marine ecology and the study's lead, said the results were "immediate and startling. . . .There were instances where the fibers could actually be seen in the stomach contents as they were being removed."

In New Zealand, Auckland Zoo staff found 106 pieces of plastic inside a hawksbill turtle, which died after 13 days of intensive care. Around Wellington, N.Z., plastic bags are so numerous they're now known as Wellington jellyfish.

A new study by the American Chemical Society has discovered that all most all marine plastic debris in the ocean comes from land-based sources, with rivers acting as a major pathway. Ten rivers in Asia and Africa are the worst offenders: the Yangtze, Yellow and Pearl rivers of China, the Indus and Ganges of the Indian sub-continent, the Mekong of Indo-China, and the Niger and Nile in Africa. The U.S. is 20th when it comes to plastic debris in the ocean. For more information, see https://goo.gl/Edy9Za

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Our seas now contain as much as 51 trillion tiny micro-plastic particles, 500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy.†It's a sorry tale, but they come from facial scrubs, toothpaste, shampoo and other cosmetics. Along with microbeads, glitter is a microplastic, and they can pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean where they enter the food chain.

At the DEMA show in Orlando, tables in several booths were covered with tiny plastic glitter. Kim Kardashian, a style icon for many young women, was recently photographed wearing precious little else. A 2016 study in the UK found it's a cause of the declining fish populations and suggested Glitter should be banned around the world, as it is in California, because it's a 'global hazard,' according to Dr. Trisia Farrelly of New Zealand's Massey University.

And The Dive Industry Must Respond

Packages with plastic bagsAs a good steward of the planet, you most likely avoid disposable plastic shopping bags by carrying a cloth bag and even carry water in a reusable bottle rather than disposable plastic. However, when you buy dive equipment, you are supporting an industry that seems to ignore the plastics problem.

You see, almost every item of diving equipment shipped to retailers is packaged in plastic. Fins, BCDs, diving suits, snorkels, an endless array of smaller items, many, like snorkels and fins, unbreakable, are packed, wrapped, and protected in plastic. Regulators may be contained in cardboard, but the boxes are sealed in plastic wrap. Masks are placed in reusable plastic boxes, and then sent to retailers wrapped in more plastic. Notwithstanding their cardboard boxes, neoprene boots are wrapped in plastic within. (What is that protecting?) A busy dive shop can fill a dumpster with discarded plastic wrapping every day.

Most retailers insist that products the products they buy carry a barcode (on an adhesive label). Those manufacturers Undercurrent spoke to stated that it was because of these labeling requirements that they must use plastic bags. Oh well, shrug your shoulders, blame it on others, but is there not a better way? Like, maybe, putting the barcodes on paper tags and attaching them to the gear?

The problem is so widespread; we can't even name and shame particular manufacturers because virtually all of them are equally to blame. Aqua Lung, Huish, Mares, Scubapro; all pack their goods in plastic. We only found one lonely manufacturer of drysuit undersuits, Weezle, based in the UK, which has eschewed the use of plastic packaging. Another small manufacturer, Fourth Element, hopes to do away with plastic packaging by 2020 -- great, but it takes three years? To its credit, it has produced a new wetsuit without any neoprene and constructed with material made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. It makes swimwear, too, from recycled ghost fishing nets that have been recovered.

Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jaclyn Mandoske, writing in the Canadian Diver Magazine, recently exhorted readers to take the lead in conservation. "The opportunity for the dive community to lead has never been greater," they wrote. They were focused on global warming and the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The oceans are the major sink for carbon dioxide -- and where would we be if we lost that?

Cousteau continues, "It's not only up to divers to lead the change; it is also the role of the diving industry to drive ocean conservation forward. It starts with making sure all dive shops and centers offer guests the opportunity to enrich their knowledge and minimize their environmental footprint.

"Divers must make the conscious effort to spend money at dive shops that employ only the best practices. We are the eyes of the ocean, and like our first meeting with the sea, something changes. It is time [for divers] to lead the change."

Indeed, but those best practices should mean eliminating plastic packaging, as well. And divers must object.

Therefore, we call upon the diving industry and the manufacturers to lead the way to find an alternative to using thousands of tons of unnecessary and environmentally destructive plastic in shipping their goods to dive shops.

Are manufacturers ready to step up to the challenge? Don't write to us. Write to the companies that proudly display their brand on your diving equipment. If you are another member of the industry planning to do away with plastic wrapping, please let us know.

- John Bantin

You can see a trailer for A Plastic Ocean here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zrn4-FfbXw

For more information about the rivers as pathways, see: https://goo.gl/Ngbtpu

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