Good Design Is Sustainable

Perk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land StudioPerk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land Studio

Good landscape design is intrinsically sustainable. While a certain level of ecological sustainability may be achieved by adhering to a checklist of environmental best practices, long-term sustainability is achieved by engaging broader cultural, economic, and socio-economic goals. It’s now widely recognized that city dwellers tend to live a less wasteful and more energy-efficient lifestyle than those who live in the suburbs or rural areas. So if well-designed urban public spaces are able to counteract the discomforts of high density, then more people will live happily, and sustainably, in cities. This was the crux of the argument made by landscape architects Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Ken Smith, FASLA, and Thomas Balsley, FASLA, in a recent panel discussion organized by the New York chapter of ASLA.

During the course of their long careers, these renowned designers have experienced two major shifts in the field of landscape architecture. One is the greater inclusion of ecological principles in design. The other is a shift in our cultural attitudes towards cities — from viewing them as unfavorable to celebrating them.

Each presented projects that engage sustainability on multiple levels and time scales.

Perk Park, a one-acre park in downtown Cleveland, was a vestige of 1970s-era landscape architecture when parks were designed as places to protect oneself from the stress of the surrounding city. “What happened, in fact, is that the space became inaccessible, it didn’t have sight lines. There were places to hide. Eventually, people wouldn’t even go in there, so it really held back the growth and vitality of the neighborhood,” said Thomas Balsley. His firm, SWA/Balsley, re-designed the park so it celebrated and engaged with the surrounding environment, blurring the edges between the park and the city (see image above).

One popular element of Perk Park is its “urban porch,” a linear pergola covering seating that lines the sidewalk. “You can sit at the porch and be in touch with the streetscape but also the park and be in dialogue with both.” The park became so vibrant that local corporations and retail began to occupy the surrounding buildings, just to be near the park.

By preserving existing trees and including new permeable green space in the densest and most impervious area of a major city, basic elements of urban ecological sustainability were achieved. Moreover, by providing what Balsley calls “a stage for daily urban life to happen,” the park achieves a long-term and nuanced form of sustainability.

“Really great design makes a difference, and it makes more of a difference than OK design,” said Schwartz. “What we see affects us psychologically and emotionally. How a space looks can determine whether or not it will be used, and therefore maintained.” The public will become active stewards of a well-designed space, but if a space is not considered valuable, “all the technologies and the well-meaning environmental practices we bring to it will disappear over time.”

For Schwartz, a successful public space is both resilient and heavily used. She achieves these goals by weaving a narrative specific to each site, as well as creating landscapes that challenge and intrigue the public. Grand Canal Square by Martha Schwartz Partners in Dublin, Ireland, uses towering, off-kilter red poles, criss-crossing paths, and a paved red “carpet.” Built before much of the surrounding development, the square’s acclaim has ushered in economic resilience. The Dublin offices of Google and Twitter are now the square’s neighbors, and the property values surrounding the square stayed steady during a time of economic downturn.

Grand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz PartnersGrand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz Partners

As part of the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan, which Ken Smith Workshop has been working on for a decade, Smith and his studio designed and built a prototype mussel habitat. Working with ecologists and marine engineers, Smith selected a concrete-textured substrate and designed a gradient of rocks to encourage the growth of mussel colonies.

In terms of providing a measurable ecological boost in the context of the East River, this 65-foot-long prototype of a constructed mussel habitat is likely only a drop in the bucket. However, being able to see the tides move up and down a slope as it fosters aquatic life is a unique sight in New York City, where hard vertical edges dominate the waterfront. Reminders that these natural processes occur amid the industry and infrastructure of the city can bring a sense of wonder to visitors, and perhaps encourage stewardship.

East River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith WorkshopEast River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith Workshop

The common belief is that good design means sacrificing sustainability or vice versa. But these landscape architects challenged this assumption. Schwartz said: “To have something work sustainably in terms of its ecological processes, it doesn’t have to look a certain way. Sustainability doesn’t have an aesthetic. If you use your creativity, there’s no reason why there is any separation between design and sustainability.”


Achieving Sustainable Tuna

Purse seine fishing vessels catch nearly 62% of the 4.2 million tons of tuna caught globally every year. To have the meaningful impact we all seek, NGOs need to collaborate on and advocate for outcomes and policies where we share common ground. Photo by Jeff Muir (2012), courtesy of ISSF.
There is no endeavor quite like commercial tuna fishing. Perhaps no other industry is comprised of such a diverse group of stakeholders – with diverse opinions and approaches – that are so actively engaged in working toward a common goal.

As many different voices weigh in to positively affect the long-term sustainability of global tuna stocks, they may not always sing in unison. However, there is actually far more sustainability policy that major stakeholders agree on than not.

For example, you’d be hard-pressed to identify one conservation group or economic stakeholder that does not believe stock health and sustainability need to be monitored, and that fisheries need to have the rules and resources in place to maintain healthy levels. There are no sustainability-minded parties among us that don’t believe we need more research and outreach to fishers to minimize secondary ecosystem impacts associated with commercial fishing (e.g. bycatch).

This broad alignment is our greatest collective strength. And rather than an overemphasis on specific tactics and approaches that we individually champion, we are working on the efforts on which we collectively agree. This harmonization is most clearly seen in efforts to engage retailers, foodservice companies and others in supporting the continuous improvement of tuna fisheries through their conservation actions and procurement strategies.

These companies are interested in the answers to a few key questions: “What should we buy to ensure our tuna is sustainable?” “How can we make sure our tuna is not IUU-fished?” or “What can we can do to help improve tuna stocks?” And these questions present tremendous opportunity. But far too often we also hear companies ask, “why when you tell us to buy certain tuna do others tell us we shouldn’t?” Or “you told us our efforts were helping, so why do some other NGOs tell us it’s still not enough?”

Of course, NGOs do not have to agree on everything. In fact, the constant flow of diverse approaches to sustainability is what keeps us on the right path. But there is a need for greater consistency in our underlying message – a common ground, a unified understanding – if we are going to engage additional stakeholders in efforts to promote tuna fishery sustainability.

So, what does such a collective approach look like? What are the minimum procurement benchmarks that NGOs can and should agree to when appealing to retailers and food service?

One effort is the Buyer Engagement Strategy Team (BEST) working group, a subset of the International Seafood Sustainability’s (ISSF) Environmental Stakeholder Committee made up of leading NGOs. This working group has documented its current consensus related to engaging buyers in support of tuna sustainability improvement. As outlined in the group’s Common Ground document, participating NGOs are advising businesses to, for example:

  • Encourage improvements to global tuna stocks to a level of performance consistent with that of an unconditional pass of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard;
  • Adopt a shared principle for sourcing guidance;
  • Recommend a minimum procurement benchmark incorporating ISSF participating companies and vessels registered on the ProActive Vessel Register, regardless of channel, product form, gear type, etc. and;
  • Adopt shared priorities for RMFO advocacy efforts.

And because we have been able to establish this common ground, we can now proceed to develop plans to conduct coordinated buyer engagement, for example, joint buyer meetings or buyer advocacy support. Important parallel efforts include Monterey Bay Aquarium’s recent work to convene the leading NGOs working on tuna issues to discuss aligned business advice for skipjack and albacore tuna. In addition, members of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions share information on many issues including sustainable seafood sourcing. This group of more than 20 NGOs connects leading conservation groups that work with businesses representing over 80% of the North American grocery and food-service markets.

It is true that ultimate responsibility lies in the hands of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) to implement broad-based and long-term sustainability measures based on sound science. But for this to happen realistically and effectively, every voice needs to be at the table, including government and non-government entities, ship owners, fleet managers, cannery directors and overseas scientists.

To have the impact we all seek, many NGOs recognize the need for better collaboration on and advocacy for the outcomes and policies where we share common ground.  And in doing so, we strive to not let the how distract from thewhat we want to achieve, and why.

Susan Jackson is president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation and Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly is Seafood Watch Director, Monterey Bay Aquarium.–By Susan Jackson and Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly

Pollution :The World’s Deepest Waters

Tiny, shrimplike amphipods living in the Mariana Trench were contaminated at levels similar to those found in crabs living in waters fed by one of China’s most polluted rivers.

Dr. Alan Jamieson/Newcastle University

The Mariana Trench in the northern Pacific is the deepest part of the world’s oceans. You might think a place that remote would be untouched by human activity.

But the Mariana Trench is polluted.

At its deepest — about 7 miles down — the water in the trench is near freezing. The pressure would crush a human like a bug. Scientists have only recently explored it.

Among them is biologist Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in England. His team dropped what they call a mechanical “lander” down into the trench. It had cameras and water samplers and some baited traps. They didn’t really know what they’d find.

When the lander surfaced, the traps contained amphipods — shrimplike crustaceans. That wasn’t terribly surprising, as amphipods are known to live at great depths. But bringing them back from the Mariana Trench was a rarity, and Jamieson thought there might be something to learn from them. He took the creatures to an environmental scientist.

“So we just sort of turn up with this really weird looking animal,” he says, “and joking aside, he came back and said these are really badly contaminated.”

The amphipods were contaminated with PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — toxic chemicals used for decades in industry, as well as other industrial pollutants known as persistent organic pollutants.

“Every sample we had,” Jamieson says, “had contaminants in it at very high or extraordinarily high levels.”

How high? He compared the contamination level in his Mariana amphipods to crabs living in waters fed by one of China’s most polluted rivers, as well as amphipods from other parts of the world. “And what we were finding in the deepest place in the world were (levels) hugely higher, 50 times in some cases,” he says.

The team found the same thing in another deep sea trench in the Pacific —heavily contaminated amphipods.

Jamieson, who was at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland when he did the research, describes the results in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. He thinks the pollutants might get to the trenches by latching on to plastic that’s floating in the ocean. Fish and other marine animals absorb pollutants, as well. Eventually, the plastic and the dead animals fall to the bottom. Like dirt in your house, a lot of it will collect at the lowest points. It’s simply a matter of gravity, and the trenches are as deep as it gets.

“Once it gets deeper and deeper and deeper, there’s nowhere else for it to go, because there’s no mechanism to put it back to the surface again,” Jamieson explains.

PCBs were banned decades ago. But they’re still out there. Marine biologist Katherine Dafforn at the University of New South Wales in Australia says the discovery of such high levels in these trenches is “disturbing.”

“A lot of chemicals will have far-reaching impacts that we don’t necessarily know about,” Dafforn says.

And those impacts might be in places that people don’t pay much attention.

Jamieson says just because pollution is out of sight doesn’t mean it’s harmless. “We’ve got to remember, planet Earth is mostly deep sea,” he says, “and to think that it’s OK just to ignore it is a little bit irresponsible.”

How Long Do Solar Panels Last?

We get a lot of questions about solar power. That’s why we’ve introduced “The Facts of Light” — a place where you can inquire about all things solar, and we’ll do our best to get you the answers.

We live in a throwaway society. Even our phones and our laptops — incredibly sophisticated, high-tech and well-designed pieces of equipment — only last a few years before we need to replace them. We might get our cars to last more than 10 years if we can put up with some repairs and diligent maintenance, but, frankly, most things aren’t very durable.

Solar panels, by comparison, are in it for the long haul. There are no digital processors, no delicate motherboards, no flywheels, no pumps and no fans. There are very few moving parts that can break or wear out, and as a result they require almost no maintenance. The components of the panel are durable and include a glass-protected solar cell (often made of silicon) that captures sunlight. A solar panel sits in one place and absorbs the sun. That’s its job.


So, even those old-school panels that went up on the homes of early adopters decades ago are still producing electricity pretty efficiently. And recent testing by outside researchers has found that the useful life of panels installed by SolarCity is 35 years or longer.

Likewise, the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has published studies on the durability and effectiveness of solar panels over time, finding solar technology truly does hold up for decades. Indeed, there there are panels out there today that are more than 30 years old (panels from the 1980s!) and still going strong. NREL’s study found that as technology has improved, the long-term performance of panels has only gotten better.

Today’s solar panel systems are just as humble and hard working as the early ones, but they are also lighter-weight, can produce more energy, and are far more stylish.


Is there a catch?

Full disclosure: After 30+ years go by, your solar panels will not be quite as efficient as the day you put them up on your roof. Annually, solar panels’ performance decreases by about half a percent. This small loss in efficiency is mainly due to exposure over time to water vapor and temperature fluctuations that wear on the coatings and materials. As a result, panels are only about 86% as efficient after 30 years. That’s nothing to sneeze at, of course. Can you think of any other product that works 86% as well after it’s been operating for 30 years?

In addition, solar panel systems have a special piece of equipment called an inverter, which may need to be replaced every decade or so. Inverters take the electricity produced by a solar panel and niftily convert it into power that’s ready to be used in your home. Inverters do have a few more parts and wiring involved, but they’re still highly durable, and new, high-quality ones are expected to last more than 14 years. No need to stress though: all of SolarCity’s systems come with a full 20-year protection plan, so if any part of your system needs repair or replacement, Solar City will fix it at no additional cost.

Lastly, because your solar panels may stay with your home longer than you do, your warranty and all the terms of your financing agreement transfer easily to the next person to inhabit your solar home if you decide to sell.

In it for the long haul

Most durable things are resilient because they are simple and made from quality materials. Solar panels, made from crystalline silicon covered in very durable glass, are like that. There’s a reason they use them in space. For one thing, it’s one of the only feasible ways they can generate electricity in space, but also it’s because solar panels can endure in even the harshest conditions.

When your solar panels’ lives finally do come to an end, SolarCity will recycle them. All parts of the panel are separated out into materials streams and made into new products. In a world where nothing lasts, a solar homeowner can always glance up at the roof for a little reassurance that the disposable society hasn’t permeated every aspect of life.

Is solar viable in cloudy climates?

In many of America’s cloudiest cities, one thing is clear: their residents are producing tons of solar power.

Cloudiness and solar energy may seem incompatible, but the truth is that solar panels can provide tremendous value even in cloudy climates. The most famous international example of this is Germany. While getting about as much sun each year as Alaska does, Germany has become a global leader on solar. In 2015, its more than 1.5 million solar installations generated about 7.5 percent of Germany’s net electricity consumption – one of the highest shares of any country.

Similarly, the United Kingdom – in spite of its reputation for dreary weather – recently achieved an impressive solar milestone: a six-month period wherein solar panels produced more electricity than the country’s coal-fired power plants.

As the U.S. continues its own path toward becoming a solar powerhouse (it currently ranks 4th globally for cumulative installed capacity), more and more of that solar power is coming from parts of the country you also might not expect. The growth in solar isn’t just happening in famously sunny cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, but also in areas with a cloudier reputation – from Boston to Burlington to upstate New York.

How is that possible, you ask? On an overcast or cloudy day, what happens to solar power production? And in regions like the Northeast, what results can solar customers expect over the course of a year? Let’s shed some light on the subject.


A glorious cloudless sky – bursting with uninterrupted sunlight every hour of the day – is a dream scenario for a solar panel. But it’s often unrealistic. And by no means is it necessary to produce solar power.

Here are some key reasons that solar panels can thrive even in cloudy conditions.SolarCity customers in the Albany, NY area have produced enough electricity to power the Empire State Building for a full year

-Even with a cloudy or overcast sky, some usable sunlight is getting through.

There are a few important types of sunlight that your solar panels can convert to electricity.

The most straightforward and most powerful fuel for a solar panel is “direct sunlight,” which arrives in a direct line from the sun. But solar panels also use “diffuse sunlight,” which is sunlight that has collided with other things in the sky – such as clouds, haze, and dust – and as a result has been broadly scattered before reaching your roof. There’s also “reflected sunlight,” which is sunlight that has bounced off buildings or the ground before hitting your solar panel.

Although diffuse sunlight is less intense than the direct kind, it does get converted to electricity – just less electricity than what would result from pure direct sunlight. For example, on an overcast day (when most of the sunlight hitting your rooftop is diffuse), a solar panel might produce only 20 percent of its maximum capacity. This isn’t ideal, but not insignificant either – and important to the overall economics of a solar power system.

-What really matters is solar panels’ total annual output, which can be large in spite of extended cloudy periods.

A cloudy month or even a cloudy season does not eliminate the value of solar panels. Rather, a solar rooftop’s success is based on how much it reduces your overall use of costly grid electricity. And it makes the most sense to evaluate that on an annual basis, rather than daily or monthly, since even the cloudiest climates get several clear days over the course of a year. As we’ll see, many cloudy areas in the U.S. get more than enough sunlight (direct, diffuse, and reflected) to produce more than a thousand dollars worth of electricity each year, while also preventing thousands of pounds of carbon pollution.

Moreover, the technology has arrived to use solar-derived electricity even when the sky is cloudy, overcast, or even pitch black. By using a battery that stores excess power during sunny periods, you can tap into that stored energy during times when your solar panels aren’t able to provide enough power.

-In some cases, a cloudier climate can actually be correlated with more solar power production.

Here’s an interesting fact: a solar panel in famously foggy San Francisco can produce slightly more energy per year than a solar panel in sunnier and hotter Sacramento. A key reason is that San Francisco has relatively cooler temperatures, while still getting a healthy amount of sunlight over the course of the year. That’s good news for solar power, because solar panels actually operate more efficiently in cooler conditions due to the nature of semiconductor materials. So although Sacramento gets more sun overall, its higher temperatures limit solar panel output. (Hat tip to for inspiring this example.)A typical solar rooftop can produce more than $1,500 in San Francisco

SF and Sacramento are both excellent places for solar panels, but it’s noteworthy that the cooler and foggier location can be slightly more conducive to solar power.

Running the numbers

Now that you know why a cloudy climate need not be a solar killer, let’s look at some specific examples in the northeast United States.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the cities in the table below experience cloudy or partly cloudy conditions on more than 260 days per year – that’s an average of more than 7 out of every 10 days. Yet the typical solar rooftop in each of the cities still receives enough total sunlight to produce well over $1,000 worth of electricity each year! In all these cities, that amounts to more than 80 percent of an average home’s annual electricity use.

Solar rooftops in cloudy cities:
How much energy can they produce? 
City Cloudy + partly cloudy days/yr  Estimated yearly $ value of electricity from
6-kW rooftop system 
Burlington, VT 307  $1,281
Albany, NY 296  $1,359
Hartford, CT 283  $1,494
Concord, NH 275  $1,413
Newark, NJ 272  $1,147
Boston, MA 267  $1,506
Providence, RI 267   $1,518
Sources: Comparative Climactic Data (NOAA, 2015) and PVWatts Calculator (NREL), with standard assumptions & average 2015 state-level electricity prices from Energy Information Administration.
SolarCity Logo

The economic and environmental benefits of solar panels in the Northeast have not been lost on its residents. Rooftop solar has spread at an impressive rate among homes and businesses throughout the region. For example, the map below shows the growth in SolarCity customers around Albany, New York – a city whose 296 days of clouds don’t stop the typical solar rooftop from producing more than $1,300 worth of electricity per year.

solarcity-installation-map-albany-nyThe story is similar in the Hartford, Connecticut area, which gets 283 days of clouds annually, yet still captures enough total sunlight for a typical solar rooftop to produce more than $1,400 worth of electricity each year.

Growth of SolarCity installations in Hartford, CT area

Likewise, sunlight is fearlessly cutting through the fog in San Francisco, as we highlighted above and also in our recent analysis of solar’s bipartisan popularity. The typical solar rooftop in SF can produce more than $1,500 worth of electricity per year.

The impact of SolarCity customers in cloudy cities is already sky-high, and much more potential remains

In each of the cloudy cities we’ve mentioned, SolarCity customers are already generating huge amounts of energy and doing the right thing for the environment.

For example, our customers in the Albany, New York area – which sees cloudy conditions more than 8 out of 10 days, on average – have already produced enough rooftop electricity to power the Empire State Building for a full year.

Just down the road in Massachusetts (whose capital city of Boston gets 267 days of clouds of year), SolarCity customers have produced enough electricity to power one of the state’s most prestigious universities – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – for a full year. You can read our calculation notes for details.

But, of course, much more potential remains. As more people learn that solar panels can be effective even in cloudy climates, get ready to see more homes and businesses installing them.

Whether you live in a cloudy city or a sunny city, get in touch with us to find out how much electricity your rooftop can produce. There’s a good chance you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Methodology and Calculation Notes

Cloudiness and Energy Value Table: Days of cloudiness is reported by NOAA’s Comparative Climactic Data. “Cloudy” denotes 8/10 to 10/10 average sky cover. “Partly cloudy” denotes 4/10 to 7/10 average sky cover. Dollar value of electricity uses annual kWh production based on results from NREL’s PV Watts solar model (with default assumptions for a 6-kilowatt system), using the closest TMY2 weather file for each city. To compute total dollar value, we multiply annual kWh production by average state-level residential electricity prices (rounded downwards to be conservative) for 2015 from Energy Information Administration. The same approach is used to estimate the annual dollar value of electricity for a rooftop system in San Francisco.

Empire State Building comparison: In 2011, the annual electricity consumption of the Empire State Building was reported to be 55 million kilowatt-hours. Since then, the building’s ambitious energy efficiency efforts suggest that its current consumption may be less than that. Solar power systems deployed by SolarCity in the Albany, NY area — which is broadly defined as the upstate region of New York that is north of Newburgh, south of Glens Falls, and west of Utica – have cumulatively produced more than 58 million kWh through June 30, 2016.

MIT comparison: In 2015, MIT reported its annual electricity consumption to be 108.8 million kilowatt-hours. Solar power systems deployed by SolarCity in Massachusetts have cumulatively produced more than 132 million kWh through June 30, 2016. Incidentally, MIT itself has demonstrated a strong, admirable commitment to solar power in recent years.


We live in a society obsessed with convenience, and that obsession has made plastic king. Though humankind has greatly benefited from plastic, the environmental costs of this reigning polymer may bring about our downfall. Traveling from land to sea in the wind or through waterways, plastic pollution is causing extensive damage to our marine life and giving life to one of the greatest ecological disasters of our times.

Plastic has been collecting in the marine environment since plastic production began in the 1950s — in fact, each square mile of the ocean contains more than 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. Eight million metric tons of plastics make their way into the ocean each year, hitching a ride on the currents and reaching the furthest corners of our seas — even turning up in the Antarctic wilderness. Simply put, the world’s oceans are becoming a toxic soup of plastic and other debris, and all life is being negatively affected.

Unfortunately, plastic doesn’t biodegrade — though it does eventually photo degrade (i.e., break down into smaller fragments by exposure to the sun). Photo degradation of plastic continues to the molecular level, yet photo degraded plastic remains a polymer. No matter how minute the pieces, they will always be plastic. Unlike naturally based paper or glass, they are not absorbed into or changed by natural processes — plastic never truly goes away.

Gyres and Garbage Patches

The majority of the plastic that enters the ocean every year ultimately sinks, harming life on the seabed. The rest finds itself caught up in gyres (large systems of circulating ocean currents), eventually accumulating in massive formations of trash called garbage patches. These patches are characterized as containing a higher concentration of plastic than surrounding oceans. As of 2017, a total of five patches have been discovered.

The most well known of the garbage patches is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a collective title for the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches created by the North Pacific gyre. Situated in the Central North Pacific Ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches for hundreds of miles across the ocean. The patch is not stationary by any means; it shifts as much as a thousand miles to both the north and south.

Though the term “garbage patch” brings to mind the image of a large floating island of trash, it’s actually a bit of a misnomer. The lion’s share of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is composed of extremely high concentrations of plastic debris, suspended at or beneath the surface of the ocean. Despite its size and density, it’s not visible from the air due to its consistency. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. As filmmaker Jo Ruxton told CNN when she visited the location:

“This was much more insidious than a huge mountain of trash which could be physically removed. You can’t remove all the tiny pieces.”

The Effect on Marine Life

Image result for The Effect on Marine Life

The horrifying impact of plastic pollution on marine life is well documented. A study from Greenpeace found that plastic pollution in the ocean has negatively affected at least 267 species worldwide, including 86 percent of all sea turtle species, 44 percent of all seabird species and 43 percent of all marine mammal species. Large pieces of plastic floating in the ocean are easily mistaken for food by seabirds, whales, dolphins and turtles. When plastic is ingested by these animals, it blocks their digestive tracts and gets lodged in their windpipes, cutting off or filling their stomach, which results in malnutrition, starvation and death. It also causes fatalities due to infection, drowning and entanglement. For instance:

  • Seabirds that feed on the ocean surface tend to ingest plastic debris that floats. The adults then feed these items to their chicks, who then fail to thrive — and very often die. One study found that 98 percent of Laysan Albatross chicks had been fed plastic in some form.
  • Multiple whales and dolphins have been found washed up on shores, their stomachs full of plastic bags and other debris.
  • A startling amount of dead sea turtles — 50 to 80 percent — have been found to have ingested plastic debris.
  • About 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets are responsible for snaring and drowning thousands of marine animals per year, including seals, sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs and other creatures.

As plastic spends time in the ocean, it absorbs pollutants in the water around it. When photo degradation breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces, it mingles with plankton and is eaten by fish and whales. The pollutants are then transferred into the tissues and organs of the animals, impacting everything from marine mega fauna to lower trophic-level organisms.

The Effect on Humans

The plastic pollution in our oceans affects more than just marine animals and birds — it also has a serious impact on human life. Once plastic debris enters the water, its ability to absorb waterborne pollutants and fragment into microscopic pieces makes it incredibly dangerous. Though the pieces cannot be seen by the naked eye, they’re still there and still plastic. Since plastic is incapable of being absorbed into the natural system, it ends being up ingested by fish and zooplankton — and eventually makes its way to our plates.

A recent study set out to see what effect this plastic was having on the food chain. Medaka, a species of fish, were fed three different diets.

  • The first group of medaka were fed regular fish food
  • The second group received a diet consisting of 10 percent “virgin” plastic (containing no pollutants)
  • The third group received a diet consisting of 10 percent plastic that had been immersed in the San Diego Bay for several months

When tested two months later, the fish on the marine plastic diet had much higher levels of persistent organic pollutants — and were more likely to have tumors and liver problems. Chelsea Rochman, author of the study and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, explains, “We found that when the plastic interacts with the juices in the [fish’s] stomach, the chemicals come off of plastic and are transferred into the bloodstream or tissue.”

So what effect does this have on humans? The chemicals released when plastic breaks down — such as bisphenol A, styrene and PS oligomer — have been shown to cause hormone disruption and interfere with the reproductive systems of animals. Furthermore, high levels of bisphenol A are significantly associated with heart disease, diabetes, impotence and breast cancer.

What Can Be Done to Stop This?

Seeing that ocean plastic pollution ignores boundaries, monitoring it is slightly problematic. As it stands, China is the biggest plastic polluter, with Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam following close behind. Though these five countries account for 50 percent of the plastic pollution in the ocean, a collective global approach is the best way to combat the issue.

Though plastic pollution in the ocean can’t be cleaned up completely, large pieces of debris can be removed and recycled. The enormity of the problem has led a number of organizations to turn their attention to eco-innovation — using ocean plastics in products for everything from fashion to function. Parley for the Oceans, an organization dead set on ending plastic pollution once and for all, recently teamed up with Adidas to create both shoes and jerseys made almost entirely from recycled ocean plastic. Other brands confronting the plastic problem include Hamilton Perkins, which turns plastic bottles into designer bags, and Norton Point, which makes sustainable sunglasses from ocean plastic and plant-based materials.

However, to truly end plastic pollution, we have to prevent it from happening in the first place — and that means changing our habits. The amount of disposable plastic products being used daily has gotten completely out of hand. As a society, we need to stop using plastic bags, Styrofoam packaging and single-use plastic containers. If we refuse to use non-eco-friendly packaging, companies will stop manufacturing it. We also need to focus on controlling litter through public education, as well as working to fund cleanup of the streets and waterways to keep plastic from making its way to the ocean. Prevention is not only key — it’s cost-effective and better for the environment.

What You Can Do on a Personal Level

As any good eco-warrior knows, prevention starts at home. There are a number of ways you can avoid adding to the growing plastic pollution problem.

  • Stop using disposable plastics: The vast majority of the plastic products we encounter on a daily basis are used once and then thrown away. Think about it: grocery bags, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee cup lids — how many times do you use these things more than once? The best thing you can do is to replace these items with reusable versions. Bring your own bags to the store, carry a travel mug to the coffee shop, and stash silverware and a reusable water bottle in your bag.
  • Blacklist products that contain microbeads: Microbeads are found in beauty products from facial scrubs to toothpaste. Though these tiny plastic beads seem harmless, their size allows them to slip through filters at water-treatment plants and make it to the ocean — where they end up being eaten by fish. Use products that have natural exfoliants, like oatmeal, sugar or salt, instead.
  • Recycle, recycle, recycle: If you’re not sure what can go in the bin, check out this handy guide: The Ultimate Plastic Breakdown.
  • Advocate for a bag tax or ban: Encourage your elected officials to join multiple other cities and counties by introducing legislation that would make plastic bag use less worthwhile.
  • Insist manufacturers do better: Write a letter, make a phone call or contact companies via social media compelling your favorite companies to use eco-friendly packaging. If they brush you off, you can hit them where it really hurts and give your money to more-sustainable competitors.

So many of the attractive qualities that led us to this love affair with plastic are what makes it so dangerous for our oceans. As consumers, it’s our responsibility to know what goes into the products we buy, and to ensure our trash doesn’t end up in the ocean. Moreover, if we put our money where our heart is, corporations and producers will be forced to bend under the pressure and start manufacturing products that have less of a negative impact on our planet. If we start working together now, we may yet have a fighting chance to save our oceans.-Liz Greene