It’s difficult today to grocery shop without coming across hundreds of products encased in plastic in some form or another, including the bags in which we carry our goods home. While this can be an everyday convenience for shoppers, it can be extremely hazardous to marine life, should that plastic reach our oceans.

Aside from packaging and bags, plastics can come in many different shapes and sizes. Microplastics for example, which are found in shampoo, toothpaste, and polyester, can easily enter waterways leading directly to the oceans. Larger plastic materials, like bags, soda and water bottles, and fishing nets pose as a serious threat to all animals within our oceans, and can even contribute to the population of microplastics after breaking down over time.

As mentioned, nearly every species of marine animal is affected greatly by plastic pollution. Sea turtles can easily mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, of which are a main part of their diets. Birds flying overhead searching for fish eggs will consume smaller plastic pellets that resemble them. Fishing nets left in the waters by fishermen entangle nearly everything in their paths, catching and eventually starving any animal that falls victim to them.

Plastic is an extremely durable material that does not break down easily. It can take up to 500 years before it is no more, which spells disaster for marine life when it reaches the oceans. There are many ways it can get there as well. Aside from careless littering, flushing plastic materials down the toilet and reaching the main sewer systems in any way can carry these materials far and wide. Though it is now illegal for fishermen and boaters in general to dump plastic overboard, that law is not always followed, and many individuals sailing the world’s oceans continue to do so regardless.

The argument that oceans are big enough for one’s pollution to never actually come in contact with a marine animal is entirely false. Ocean currents are constantly moving any and all materials found in the water, and are also popular areas for millions of fish to spend their time searching for food and breeding. One animal that was affected particularly badly was the seal. Several different species of seals were being killed at an alarming rate due to plastic entanglement back in the 1970’s, which led to 6% decrease in the seal population in 1976, and a 50% decline in Northern fur seals. Hundreds of other marine species have been harmed over time as well, leading to a plea by the American people to regulate and reduce the production of plastics.

Finally, laws were set in place restricting the dumping of plastic in oceans around the world, but there is no way for law enforcement to ensure that everyone is actually following these rules. Companies across the United States are doing their part by using more biodegradable products, but there is still plenty of plastic debris floating around today. To do your part, recycle as often as you can, take part in local cleanups, and spread the word.