When you gaze at the ocean from any of South Carolina’s beaches, you witness an undulating calm that seeps into your body and relaxes. But as a fall report by the Pew Charitable Trusts offers, that calm is deceiving. Under the seas is a chaotic blender of human-induced plastic and waste that’s wreaking havoc on the ocean that feeds millions and provides half of our oxygen.

“The ocean is in trouble,” Pew President and CEO Susan K. Urahn writes in the fall issue of Trend, “stressed by overfishing, pollution and a warming climate that is altering its very chemistry.” But she adds meaningful solutions are available now that can mitigate damage: “Marine protected areas show that the ocean can replenish itself. Science-based fisheries management proves that depleted stocks can be restored. As altered as the ocean has been by climate change, coastal wetlands remain the planet’s best carbon dioxide storehouses.”

Perhaps the most alarming part of the Trend issue is how plastic is choking our ocean. “Some 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic every minute,” Pew staffer Winnie Lau writes. 

Part of it is what we see on our beaches — plastic caps, straws, bags, bottles. But there are also microplastics from the breakdown of vehicle tires, textiles and other ocean litter. Then there’s pesky plastic micropellets, or nurdles, which Charleston Waterkeeper finds every time it sifts through sand on our beaches. What’s particularly dangerous about these pellets is that they mimic fish eggs and other organisms, which means they’re eaten by sea life and get into our food supply. And while there’s state legislation to thwart nurdle spills, more needs to be done to curb use of plastic altogether.

Not only does it mean local governments need to work with local manufacturers and businesses to encourage reduction in the use of plastic, but it means national governments need to cooperate to get big companies to change packaging practices to make them more sustainable and green. 

The 3Rs of conservation — reduce, reuse and recycle — can make a big difference for our oceans. Only 9% of plastic makes it to recycling plants, Pew reports, obviously suggesting that more vigorous recycling programs at local levels could easily cut the plastic trash filling the ocean. What’s recycled can be reused. And if packagers start using more sustainable materials — like the computer industry has done with an abundance of cardboard replacing plastic — then we’ll cut what’s wasted and sinks below the ocean’s surface.

There are myriad strategies that can keep waste streams out of the ocean and help it to recover. But here in our backyard, let’s do everything we can to curb use of plastic waste so it doesn’t end up in places we want to remain as clean as possible.

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