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Plastic Pollution is like a Slow-Motion Oil Spill

Fossil fuel extraction is causing two of the greatest threats to our ocean: plastic pollution and climate change

OceanImageBank_NicoMarin_12
© Nico Marin/ Ocean Image Bank

When we think of our ocean’s biggest catastrophes, we tend to focus on specific events.

I remember watching in horror as oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Deepwater Horizon,  just two decades after the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill spread across Prince William Sound in Alaska. In the aftermath of those disasters, we mourned the human lives lost and the impacts to animals and coastal communities, started arduous cleanup efforts that continue today and worked to hold the two companies—BP and Exxon—financially and morally accountable for the damage.

As we acknowledge, respond to and remember catastrophic events like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, we must also address another spill that is happening every day, right in front of our eyes: plastic pollution.

Every year, 11 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean. Nearly all of these plastics are made from fossil fuels including crude oil, natural gas liquids and coal. The crude oil needed to make that much plastic is over 800 times more than the amount spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster [1].

So, the plastics that escape to our ocean are like a slow motion oil spill that is happening every day, all around the world.

This spill is a pervasive threat to ocean life and coastal communities. Plastic can be easily mistaken by wildlife for food, and it has been found in more than half of all seabirds and all species of sea turtles. Filter feeders like whale sharks can ingest microplastics, or very small pieces of plastic, as they filter the surrounding water for food. And emerging research shows that microplastics affect photosynthesis, growth and reproduction for phytoplankton and zooplankton. These tiny organisms perform a critically important service for the climate: like trees, they uptake carbon, helping the ocean absorb one third of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Ocean plastics, such as those collected by our International Coastal Cleanup partners last week on beaches and waterways around the world, are a product of the fossil fuel industry that is driving climate change. The greenhouse gas emissions from the plastics sector are about 2 gigatons, equivalent to the emissions from 370 million passenger cars. Also, both fossil fuel and plastic production create significant air and water pollution with severe health consequences for local communities.

There is a surge of investment in new plastic production right now. As the fossil fuel industry sees its future shrink in energy and transportation fuels, it is banking on growth in plastics to make up the difference. If that growth occurs, we will continue to rely on and invest in fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when we need a rapid transition to a clean energy economy  to ensure a livable planet and healthy ocean.

We must confront skyrocketing plastic production or climate change and plastic pollution will both get worse.

The most direct way to reduce CO2 emissions, keep plastic out of the ocean, and ensure healthy, livable communities is to prevent this massive new wave of fossil-fueled plastic production and use.

Congress is working on legislation right now that goes to the heart of this problem: repealing the fossil fuel tax breaks that make new plastic dangerously cheap and enable new oil and gas drilling, while providing incentives for clean, renewable energy production.

Take action this Climate Week and tell your members of Congress to support bold climate action to end fossil fuel subsidies and support renewable energy. It’s better for the ocean, better for the climate, and better for people.

[1] The Exxon Valdez disaster released about 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean. It takes about 0.4 gallons of crude oil to make one pound of plastic, which means that 11 million metric tons of plastic  equates to approximately 9.7 trillion gallons of oil.

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