The quick answer: they are equally large and serious problems; they are imminent; they threaten people on islands and coasts quite directly; they require not only massive governmental action from international and national bodies but individual actions–both require us to change ourselves and our society.
Marine debris may sound like a narrow problem compared to global warming, and it is less publicized. You may not be aware of it unless you live on an island, by a seacoast, or near one of the Great Lakes, where some beaches are covered by literally tons of plastic. Folks living near the ocean are more likely to have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or seen a photo of the stomach contents of an albatross or other seabird killed by ingesting plastic debris. Lately, though, ocean-borne trash–or we should call plastic pollution–is gaining the kind of attention devoted to big problems thanks to the huge field of debris from the Japanese tsunami that is headed toward the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, the West Coast of North America, and eventually back to the main islands of Hawai’i.
Unlike climate change no one is going around saying scientists are making up the problem. But the magnitude of the debris problem and the fact that it is now entering the food chain (plastic photodegrades to pieces so small that even plankton ingest it) makes it a similar threat to future generations and perhaps an even more difficult problem to solve. Suzanne Frazer, founder of the Oahu nonprofit Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai’i, or B.E.A.C.H., thinks so. As she told a reporter, “Global warming has proved to be both preventable and reversible because we know the steps we need to take, we just have to take them. When you’re talking about plastic dust, microscopic plastic in our ocean, when 71 percent of our earth is ocean, how do we clean it all up?”
Dianna Cohen, founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, recommends we name the real problem, and it isn’t the generic term “marine debris.” She told a journalist, “If over 80 percent of what we are finding in the ocean is plastic, then let’s call it what it is: plastic pollution.”
Both problems may seem intractable, but they must be solved, and they will take major changes in attitiudes and public pressure on political leaders.