Cosmetic Waste in Our Oceans

Written By: Suzy González and Alejandra Tolley

As it turns out, the Veggie Mijas Writing Team is made up of individuals who are all astrological water signs! While water signs might be the ones to feel a particular closeness to this element, the truth is - water is life! The importance of caring for our planet's bodies of water is now more important than ever. That’s why for the month of July, we are highlighting all things ocean.

I want to start with the fact that while there are habits that we can all adopt to help protect and care for our environment, it is not something that just us as individuals should be held accountable for. According to The Met Office, The fact of the matter is that climate change is most significantly driven by the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and animal agriculture at the hands of big corporations.

As we’ve seen with the recent occurrence of a ruptured underwater pipeline creating a fire in the ocean, our dependence on fossil fuels is no doubt affecting our seas. Known as “Eye of Fire,” the ruptured pipeline is a perfect example of the mass volume of harm that corporations have caused to our marine life. Though the workers managed to successfully put out the fire within 5 hours, it was reported that Nitrogen was used to control the spread. The Ocean River institute describes Nitrogen as one of the worst pollutants in the world and reports it to be incredibly detrimental to our environment and especially our oceans. According to this article, Nitrogen (N₂O), produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2),. This leads to an increase in water acidity (lower pH) which in turn causes marine life to be more vulnerable to disease. According to data from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the fossil fuel industry is slowly changing the fundamental chemistry in our oceans. Ocean Acidification (OA) can severely disrupt marine ecosystems and it’s detrimental effects can be described as “equal to 500 billion Volkswagen Beetles dumped at sea.” The violence corporations have caused in our environment run deeply, and need to be confronted and dismantled for our biodiversities to heal. When we see the amount of stacking evidence of capitalism destroying the planet, it’s difficult to say that individual action is the solution to solving climate change. But there is always something we can do.

It’s summertime, and many of us will be wanting to visit the beach. As global warming hits harder every year, we will, of course, want to protect the vulnerable organ that is our skin; however, we shouldn’t be too quick to reach for the nearest sunscreen without considering how it might affect our environment. Whether it washes into the water or absorbs into the sand, sunscreen pollutes our oceans. A study done by Haereticus Environmental Agency claims that Oxybenzone, a common UV-blocking chemical used in sunscreen, has highly toxic effects that harm and kill coral reefs globally by inducing bleaching and deformities. This damages their DNA so that they can’t reproduce and even causes coral larvae to encase themselves in their skeletons, ultimately leading to death.

A 2015 study found that oxybenzone can prove dangerous to corals at the equivalent of one drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools. Concentrations of oxybenzone on Hawai’i’s beaches have been measured at more than ten times that amount, and sadly 80% of the Caribbean’s coral reefs have already been lost. In addition to corals, oxybenzone is toxic to algae, sea urchins, fish, and aquatic and land mammals (that means us!). It’s reported that other harmful chemicals found in sunscreen include octinoxate, avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, methoxycinnamate, camphors, and nanoparticles found in zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These compounds can be found in over 3,500 sunscreen products around the world.

Interestingly, we don’t even need to be at the beach in order for these chemicals to get washed in our waters. Washing off sunscreen chemicals or other cosmetics in the shower can also be toxic to marine organisms as they dissolve into our water. Although it’s a process, change is happening. Just this January in Hawai’i, the nation’s first law banning the sale of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate went into effect. Since laws are slow to protect our planet, we can’t forget the power that we do have to care for our environment. 

We must do our part to identify and boycott products that intentionally harm our oceans and choose to protect ourselves by other means such as with umbrellas, hats, and safe sunscreens instead. Look for reef-safe sunscreens, mineral sunscreens that don’t contain nanoparticles, avoid aerosols (these leech into the sand and can be harmful if inhaled), and only apply to parts of the body that won’t be submerged in water.

More visual signs of ocean pollution are plastic garbage, often seen littering beaches. This is an easy one—if you see trash, pick it up and throw it away! However, many plastics harming our oceans may be out of reach or too small to see. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are either purposely manufactured at small scales in products (think microbeads or glitter) or have been broken down over time from larger plastic debris that has found its way into the ocean.

Microplastics make up the majority of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the floating body of trash in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawai’i and California. It is bound by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a system of plastic-ridden currents that measures 7.7 million square miles. “Garbage patches'' are evidence that plastics do not degrade but just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, harming marine life.

Sea turtles often mistake plastic for food, and if they become tangled in their youth, they may live their lives bound in plastic. Birds like the albatross feed microplastics that resemble fish eggs to their young, resulting in their deaths. Marine mammals such as seals may get entangled in discarded fishing nets and drown. These large bodies of microplastics prevent sunlight from reaching plankton and algae vital to the marine food circle of life. For example, if algae and plankton cannot absorb nutrients from sunlight, their lives are threatened. This means that animals like fish and turtles that feed on algae and plankton are negatively affected. Thus, larger  creatures like tuna, sharks and whales end up getting less food. This vicious cycle is mainly caused by waste from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups.

So what can we do? First, we must hold corporations accountable for the continued profit-driven exploitation of our planet. Stay informed and use your voice. Individually, you can reduce the amount of plastic that you use and the waste that you produce in general. Be responsible for your own trash in addition to abandoned trash, and dispose of it properly. Bring your own bags to the store, participate in or organize local cleanups, reuse items whenever possible, avoid single-use plastics, and despite it being minimally effective in the larger picture, always recycle. Educate your family and friends on the issues and encourage them to take these steps too!

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