By Amanda Waddle
Zero Waste Gainesville (ZWG) and UF/IFAS Extension - Florida Sea Grant/Nature Coast Biological Station hosted a screening of The Smog of the Sea followed by a panel discussion at First Magnitude Brewing Company in Gainesville, FL. The goal of this film screening and panel discussion was to bring awareness of the problem of plastic pollution in oceans for World Oceans Day which is June 8th. The Repurpose Project and Sea Turtle Conservancy, both nonprofits in Gainesville, shared their knowledge on waste reduction and paper straws at this event.
The Smog of the Sea is a 30 minute documentary produced by musician Jack Johnson about a 5 Gyres ocean expedition on Mystic. A group of scientists, activists, surfers and artists traveled from the Bahamas to Bermuda along the North Atlantic ocean gyre to raise awareness that there is no floating land mass of trash on our oceans, but instead it’s a smog of small plastic pieces intertwined with plant material like sargassum that floats on the surface. The group examined samples collected in trawls they deployed. They divided the plastic pieces they found into greater than 5mm and 5mm or less in size. Plastic 5 millimeter or less in size are considered microplastics.
The beauty of the ocean from the boat and from under water is captured magnificently in this documentary and at first glance there is no evidence that plastic is in our oceans. A closer look shows a great amount of small pieces of plastic swirling and churning in our oceans along with the plants and animals.
Scientists estimate that 80% of plastic in the oceans is from land based sources (see "Plastics in the Marine Environment" and "Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean"). Plastic in our oceans come from everyday items such as bottles, straws, bags and containers (often referred to as single-use items) along with derelict or discarded fishing gear. Many of these items sink to the seafloor and remain intact due to the cold temperature and lack of sunlight. The plastic that remains at the top or close to the top of the ocean will break down into smaller pieces (photodegrade) due to salt water movement and sunlight.
We all have the power to help the oceans. A combined approach of picking up litter while you are at the beach or shoreline coupled with avoiding single-use plastic items such as straws, bags, clamshell containers, cups, utensils, and bottles is the best action to take. A step further would be to share this message of avoiding single-use plastics with friends, family, city/county/state officials and even the manufacturers of these items.
Our event to raise awareness of the millions of microplastics floating in our oceans was replicated in 8 other locations throughout Florida in honor of World Oceans Day. The panelists in Gainesville discussed global plastic pollution issues along with local issues such as how local restaurants are affected by the movement to avoid expanded polystyrene (plastic #6) and straws, which are either made of polypropylene (#5) or polyethylene (#2) . Local business owners, Joy Hughes (Loosey’s) and Christine Denny (First Magnitude Brewing Company) talked about the challenges of avoiding single-use plastics. They were joined by the University of Florida’s Director of the Office of Sustainability, Matt Williams and Rob Greenfield who talked about the challenges of educating the public on plastic pollution and the challenges of recycling plastics. Recycling plastic is very difficult because much of the plastic in use isn’t recyclable such as clamshells that are often used for to-go food and as containers for various berries in grocery stores. America’s plastic recycling used to be shipped to China but now China isn’t buying our plastic adding to the complexity of plastic recycling.
The takeaway of this event is that there is no “away.” Our trash has to go somewhere and often that somewhere is in our environment including our oceans. The best way to deal with this is to avoid single-use plastics and advocate for a zero waste lifestyle and for your city to work towards zero waste. A zero waste lifestyle is incompatible with single-use plastics and giving up single-use items for reusable/durable/washable items is the first and easiest thing you can do. The only peer reviewed definition of zero waste is here and a past blog on zero waste is here.
If you would like to view The Smog of the Sea click here, then click on screening kit. You will see a link and password to download the film to watch on your computer or share during an event.