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It’s easy to see the dangers of letting plastics into the ocean

Published on November 11, 2007 under Plastics

Originally appeared in the Juneau Empire on November 11, 2007.

“Didn’t you see it coming? What did you do?” I began plaguing my grandmother with those two questions when I first learned about Hitler and the Third Reich.

My German grandma had lived through the Nazis’ rise to power and the war. Her answers to my questions showed resignation and helplessness.

“I tried not to think about it,” she said. “There was nothing I could have done, anyway.”

She said the German people kept their heads down, hoping it would soon be over.

“I didn’t find out how bad it really was for many people until it was over,” she said.

But that was a long time ago. Now, many years later, I find myself on a different continent and in very different circumstances.

I have lived in Juneau for more than two years. My friends and family back in Germany often wonder why I insist on staying here. Why am I still here?

Well, for one, I have met amazing people and found a sense of belonging in Juneau that is different from anything I have ever experienced before. And I have seen, learned and discovered many new things.

I have seen the glittering of phosphorus in the water during an overnight fishing trip. I have seen more water – in the sea and coming from above – than ever before. I have met people who make a living directly from the ocean. I have seen trees and moss and lichen and rivers that seem untouched by humans – still in the state they were meant to be.

Their presence somehow makes me want to be like I was meant to be. All these things may not sound that extraordinary to those of you who have lived here for a long time, but they are very extraordinary to a city girl from Munich, Germany.

But I also have seen plastic bags and bottles floating in the channel and eagles scavenging through plastic bags at the dump.

I have been reading about the problem of plastics in the environment, especially in the ocean, and here are some of the findings that most alarm me:

The plastic garbage we produce never really goes away, but pollutes, chokes, intoxicates and kills sea life. It ultimately accumulates in our bodies, making us sick.

In the United States alone, 8 billion pounds of plastic bags are discarded every year. Plastic bags cover miles and miles of ocean floor, and in some areas of the deep ocean, scientists have been unable to find the floor because it is so heavily layered with plastic bags.

Half of all plastic in the ocean sinks, and underneath this garbage, shellfish, worms and other animals that help make up the bottom of the food chain die. There are many times more plankton-sized bits of plastics than actual plankton in huge areas of the Pacific Ocean – up to 1,000 times more in some regions. Birds, fish and marine animals ingest these counterfeits mistaking them for food – and millions are dying.

The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and supplies up to 85 percent of the world’s oxygen and nitrogen. We can’t live without the ocean, and its health is rapidly deteriorating.

Sometimes I project myself into the future and imagine myself as a grandma with a sweet little girl looking at me asking: “Didn’t you see it coming? What did you do?”

Speaking up and taking action to remedy the current crisis, does not entail any danger to one’s life, like it did during the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, it is still easy to fall into the trap of indifference and respond like my grandma did by trying not to think about the problem, being unaware of its graveness, feeling utterly powerless, and hoping it will go away.

Here in Juneau I found a group of people who refuse to ignore the contamination of the ocean any longer. We are researching the depth of the problem, and we are taking action to raise awareness, to prevent plastic garbage and to clean up the beaches – in an effort to turn this tide.

Hildegard Sellner, Ph.D., is a council member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote environmentally friendly living and alternatives to plastics.