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SANTA CRUZ —
Local resident Fran Politeo says it's becoming more obvious each time she takes a walk along the Santa Cruz coast.
"Almost every time I'm walking here, I see bottles. You know: soda bottles, plastic water bottles, alcohol bottles. Plastic bags. Just a lot of food trash," says Politeo.
Since being introduced decades ago, disposable plastic products have grown to become part of our daily lives. But petroleum-based plastic was designed to last virtually forever.
Almost every single piece of plastic ever made is still around. Much of that plastic waste material has ended up in the ocean; out of sight, out of mind, but never gone.
"The ocean's in trouble, [therefore] we are in trouble. Whether we live in Illinois or the Bay Area here in California, we live and die by the ocean," says senior scientist at the Ocean Conservancy in Santa Cruz, Wallace J. Nichols.
Nichols says plastic garbage on the beach is the tip of a much, much bigger problem.
Far out in the pacific ocean between California and Hawaii, there are huge islands of garbage swirling together into ever-growing "cyclones" of debris. One island of trash is twice the size of the state of Texas.
The Algalita Marine Research Foundation shot pictures of the cyclones which are actually circular ocean currents sucking in millions of tons of trash. Much of it indestructible plastic pieces that becomes a fatal part of the food chain.
"Eventually, plastic just falls apart into tiny little pieces that dissolve in the water and are eaten by the animals that live in the ocean [called] filter feeders -- the fish that eat the filter feeders, such as the crabs and plankton. Fish eat those animals, [then] bigger fish eat the smaller fish," explains Nichols. "And then the animals that we tend to really pay attention to -- the marine mammals like the sea lions, the seals, the sea turtles -- they eat those larger animals and accumulate the toxins in their bodies."
One reason plastic pollution is so dangerous to sea life is that modern plastic products look shiny and colorful. A plastic bag can look like a jellyfish; small pieces resemble plankton; and pellets appear to be different types of food to fish and birds.
Naturalists and ecologist have found plastics making their way into the diets of albatrosses and other birds that nest out in the Hawaiian Islands. Birds are eating lighters, bottle caps from water bottles and soda bottles, plastic tubes, pieces of toys and more.
Some scientists say the public's perception of this "plastic plague" is similar to the way people used to look at global warming. This type of ocean pollution took a long time to catch the public's attention. And now scientists say many people probably view the problem as so vast that there's nothing they can do about it.
But they'd be wrong.
"Everyone can help. Make sure you don't leave trash on the beach. Don't dump anything overboard. It's pretty basic things. And all of those little steps can really add up and help protect the ocean, protect the beaches and protect the marine wildlife," says Ocean Conservancy Program Manager Kaitilin Gaffney.
There are other bigger steps being taken as well, including the development of corn-based plastic products that decompose faster and more completely than their traditional counterparts.
Congress is considering legislation to examine plastic pollution, but scientists say a concerted, international effort is needed because a "plastic ocean" is a problem for the whole planet.
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