Gazing at the sunrise on the beach, it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of the ocean. But there is an ugliness that has been building off our coast for decades: Trash. A lot of trash.
A 2015 study in the Journal Science estimated that about 8 million metric tons of trash a year is dumped into the oceans. To make the figure eight million tons comprehensible, environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck says it is comparable to lining up five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline around the globe.
All this trash is taking its toll on marine life. Research shows that fish and other sea animals can ingest large pieces of plastic that will clog their intestines, or they can become entangled in plastic and suffocate. Scientists also know that plastic breaks down into smaller microfibers, which can be ingested by smaller invertebrates that are the base of the food chain. It is estimated that over four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea.
College of Charleston biology professor Phil Dustan has seen the effects of this waste problem. Dustan, who is is well-known for his study of coral reefs, was recently featured in the documentary film Chasing Coral, which looks at the shocking increase in coral bleaching. He says the fallout from pollution and waste can be seen in many places.
“We find it everywhere we look from coral reefs to the eagle poop,” Dustan says.
Geology professor Leslie Sautter agrees.
Sautter is the founder of Project Oceanica and has logged hundreds of hours on the ocean doing research with students. “Plastics are found in the guts of many marine organisms,” says Sautter. “Although the plastics are small, they are very harmful and are on the rise. ‘Out of sight’ often means ‘out of mind’, but that’s a dangerous problem.“
The impact is also showing up close to home in Charleston.
A few years ago, undergraduate students under the supervision of Dustan reported the discovery of synthetic microfibers in Lowcountry oysters, including those in undeveloped Bulls Bay, north of Charleston.
Scientists say the solution to plastic pollution is better waste-management practices on land. Many are advocating for alternatives to plastic bags and other plastic products.
Sautter says she would like to see the College make a small change that could make a big difference.
“I’d really like to see the College be proactive and work with the city to ban the use of plastic straws,“ she says. “Thousands are used each day in Charleston and they aren’t often recycled, but end up in the waste stream. Sadly, many end up in our coastal waters.”
For the next few weeks, the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art is presenting a series of exhibitions and programs to raise awareness about our enormous plastic waste problem and the detrimental effects on our planet. The exhibit, titled “Sea Change,” features the exhibitions Aurora Robson: The Tide is High and Chris Jordan: Midway.