Why Oceans Are Vital to Us All
World Oceans Day is a welcome opportunity to pause and consider the natural wonder that is our planet’s system of oceans!
- Covering 70% of the globe and holding 96% of all the water on Earth, oceans are home to most of the world’s living species.
- There is an incredible diversity of marine life living in layered ecosystems that extend downward for over four miles below sea level.
- Through photosyntl hesis, ocean phytoplankton (aka algae) absorbs 25% of the carbon dioxide created from humans burning fossil fuels, and releases 50% of the atmosphere’s oxygen (for us to breathe!).
- Oceans play the lead role in the planet’s entire water cycle, generating the fresh water we drink and influencing all major aspects of weather, including surface temperatures, precipitation, and storms.
Unfortunately, human activity, especially the ongoing burning of fossil fuels, is extremely disruptive to the oceans’ natural cycles and native communities.
People Pollution Infects Oceans
Climate change is the direct result of the industrial revolution and 150 years of people processing fossil fuels to power energy plants, oil refineries and ultimately our homes, offices, restaurants, stores, trains, cars, trucks and airplanes. In the oceans, climate change increases both the base temperature of the water and the amount of acidity\ while also raising sea levels.
If fossil fuels seem far away and intangible, humans also contribute to ocean degradation in a much more visible way. Plastic is hard to recycle, and not enough of us do it or live in communities where it’s even an option. As a result, a lot of discarded household and industrial plastic ends up in the ocean, floating on the water’s surface and underneath — bags, bottles and bottle caps, containers, packaging, and lots of discarded fishing nets. There are now permanent oceanic garbage “patches,” places where the ebb and flow of tides pushes and pulls debris into islands of floating trash.
Furthermore, there are increasing concentrations of nearly invisible plastic in ocean water in the form of microbeads from beauty products and microfibers (fibers smaller than 5mm in length) from clothes. These plastic pollutants wash down the drains of our homes, pass through municipal water filtration systems, and flow directly into the ocean. Unlike fibers and abrasive particles from natural materials like cotton or wool, these plastic fibers and beads don’t degrade. Instead, they enter the food chain, through fish who mistake them for food, and through the water cycle, getting carried back to land by wind or rain and deposited into our gardens, farms, and reservoirs.
Plastic In Clothing Pose a Problem, and a Solution
Fashion plays a role in both the problem of and the potential solution to plastic pollution in our oceans. Synthetic textiles have incredible technical capabilities, which is why they are the basis of most of our favorite athleticwear, outdoor all-weather staples, and so much of what we wear when we are in or traveling on the ocean, e.g., bathing suits, rash guards, windbreakers, etc.
While most fabrics shed fibers when they are washed, synthetic fabrics (elastane, polyester, polyamide, nylon, viscose, lycra, spandex, and those made from recycled plastic waste) shed microfibers that don’t degrade. You can’t really see them but these little bits of plastic slough off in the wash and when the machine drains, down go the plastics.
Most municipal water systems don’t have filters sensitive enough to catch these microfibers, so they flow out to the ocean. There, they absorb toxins, are ingested by fish or get absorbed into the atmosphere on water vapors and then return to earth via wind, rain, and snow. Studies are ongoing about the impact of these microfibers on our water system.
There’s optimism here however. Many efforts are underway internationally to divert solid plastic trash, especially bottles and fishing nets, from oceans and landfills. Technology now exists to transform that kind of trash into fibers that can be woven into textiles. Enter: the fashion industry.
Numerous brand names have been leaders in this space for decades, making the initial investments to research and develop ways to turn trash into clothing. In 2015, adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans to develop a fiber made from plastic fishing nets that was strong and pliable enough for a performance sneaker. More recently, Nike’s innovations with a wider range of discarded plastics led to its line of Space Hippie sneakers. Other examples include Patagonia fleeces, Noah running jackets, 4Laps joggers, and Everlane puffers and parkas.
To be clear, diverting trash from oceans is a win but it doesn’t eliminate our larger plastic problem or get at the worst offenders in generating greenhouse gases. While harvesting plastic bottles and fishing nets reduce the burden on our oceans, the new products are a form of downcycling, meaning they themselves cannot be easily recycled. A lot of policies need to be altered to make manufacturing more environmentally friendly but, until that happens, responsibility continues to sit with us, the individual consumer, as we make decisions every day that either increase or decrease the demand for fossil fuels and plastics.
Here’s what you can do:
- Select clothing that is made from natural fabrics.
- Select clothing that is 100% one fabric, making it much more likely to be recyclable.
- Reserve purchasing synthetics and blends for items that are more technical and durable and will reside in your wardrobe for a long time.
- Wash with care. Launder less often using cold water, by hand when possible, and air dry. Add a special filter to your washing machine if available or use a filter bag to catch microfibers.
- Repair your clothes whenever possible rather than discarding and replacing them.
- Avoid microbeads in your beauty products. Look for natural abrasives instead.
- If you are getting ready to purchase a car, go electric!
- Pick up trash whenever you are near waterways, even if it’s not your own.
Most importantly, make a conscious effort to avoid plastic as much as you can. Yes, this means that your canvas totes, and stainless steel water bottles and coffee mugs are truly a feel-good option. They won’t save our oceans but at least they’re not polluting them either.