This Global Recycling Day, Consider the Coral Reefs

Garbage pile on a beach near the ocean Photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash

Each year, Global Recycling Day (on March 18) spurs consumers to consider their recycling best practices and move toward change. It’s a great cause and an important step—but this year, let’s take it a step further and consider moving away from single-use plastic altogether.

The world’s coral reefs are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. More than 4,000 types of fish reside in and around coral reefs, and over a million aquatic species depend on reefs at some point in their life cycle. Unfortunately, when plastic makes its way to the ocean, it also finds a home in coral reefs, causing serious problems for these elaborate structures of the sea.

The good news is you don’t have to live anywhere near the ocean to have an impact on coral reefs. You just have to consider how the plastic you purchase, use, and discard can easily find its way to waterways where it can harm fish, birds, coral reefs and so much more. Your role as a consumer puts you into a position of power—and you can use that position to advocate for change and decrease the amount of waste that harms our coral reefs and the planet at large.

The particular problem with plastic

The impact of waste on the ocean is visible in heartbreaking photos—wildlife tangled in plastic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where seven million square miles of water are clouded with microplastics and floating trash, and beaches littered with trash.

Garbage pile on a beach near the ocean
Proper waste management is a global issue–but making smart consumer choices from home can make a difference for coral reefs. Photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash.

But these images are just the surface of the damage being done to the oceans. Below the surface, garbage—and plastic in particular—is wreaking havoc. Plastic makes up about 18% of landfill waste, and millions of tons of it wind up in our oceans each year.

A 2018 study gave us a better understanding of the impact of all that plastic on reefs in particular. Researchers studied 159 coral reefs in Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar, and discovered that when corals come in to contact with plastic, the likelihood for disease increases from 4% to 89%. Floating bits of plastic block out sunlight, spread pathogens, and cut into corals, making them more susceptible to infection.

The study also showed that coral reefs off the coast of Australia had the least amount of plastic nearby. This is likely thanks to more vigorous waste management systems compared to other surveyed regions as well as the reefs being much further off shore.

Climate Change and Waste

Climate change is already having alarming impacts on coral reefs around the world. From warming temperatures and rising sea levels to extreme weather and ocean acidification, every resident of the ocean is contending with changes to their environment and those changes are only going to accelerate. Coral reefs are especially vulnerable, and so many other living things depend on their survival.

In 2016, over half of all coral reefs faced extreme heat stress, and 29% of the Great Barrier Reef was killed. From 2014 to 2017, 75% of the world’s coral reefs faced bleaching-level heat.

coral bleaching on Great Barrier Reef
Coral bleaching occurs when corals become stressed, most often when ocean water gets too warm. Corals will “eject” the symbiotic algae (called zooxanthellae) that live inside them. When corals lose their algae, they not only lose their color (turning white) but also their built-in food source. Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash.

We know that climate change and warming waters are a direct result of carbon in the atmosphere, and the extraction of fossil fuels is what’s releasing all that CO2.

Research shows that corals can adapt to the effects of climate change if they are healthy—but that requires two things: it requires us keeping them healthy (i.e. keeping waste out of the ocean) and it requires us to slow the rate of our emissions.

As we use and purchase more plastic, we continue to contribute to this cycle of fossil fuels and climate change. Consider a single-use plastic water bottle: when something like a plastic bottle is used once and then tossed, not only does it clog our oceans and become a threat to sea life, but its short lifespan also means producers are pumping more carbon into the atmosphere to meet those single-use needs.

How to Become a Coral Reef Advocate

The good news is you don’t have to live near an ocean to protect coral reefs. You can start by changing your consumer habits, and then take it a step further by advocating for higher level change.

The first step is becoming a more conscious consumer—embrace the reuse movement! Shop at grocery stores that have bulk bins, and bring your own reusable bags and containers to fill. Avoid purchasing items that are wrapped in unnecessary plastic packaging. Bring your own to-go containers to restaurants. Try to repair something that’s broken rather than replacing it.

food stored in reusable glass containers
As consumers, we make choices every day that impact our planet. Next time you go grocery shopping, choose a store with bulk bins and bring your own reusable containers. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Next, take it to the next level by becoming a change advocate. Push for policies that limit waste and curb greenhouse gas emissions. Use your voice as a voter to sign petitions. Let your government representatives know you care by writing letters and making phone calls. And take it corporate—put pressure on corporations to adopt more environmentally friendly practices and reduce the impact of their production and packaging.

And finally, talk about it. Help change the culture of consumerism by using your voice and sharing your story on social media and in social circles. Use hashtags like #breakfreefromplastic and share stories about why you’re working so hard to protect our planet.

The more we talk about environmental issues, the more we normalize them. And these ideas are certainly worth normalizing.

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