It is often said that everything that the universe is made of, we are also made of. We eat Earth! Think about it just a little and you will easily see how our physical bodies take up and throw out various elements. It’s all in the food we consume and the waste that we shed. Where does the food come from? The ‘environment’, of course.

What we eat is, ultimately, a form of Earth, energy. So, all the time Earth (geography) is what we are in body. Goes back to show what my young geographer student Vaaman said, “Geography is within me, not just out there.”

The oceans

The food we consume does not come just from the land. It also comes from the vast oceans (quick: what percentage of Earth is covered by oceans?) The oceans have long been a rich source of proteins and other essential components of diet.

There are things we are doing on land – after all, we are a terrestrial species – that are seriously affecting the global food cycle of which we are all part in some way or other. We do not escape it!

Toxic chemicals

Recently, a group of scientists reported finding banned toxic chemicals in living organisms in the deepest part of the oceans – the Mariana Trench (look it up in the atlas). They collected samples of animals etc. from deep in the trench and found alarmingly high levels of toxic chemicals that have long been restricted or even banned.

We throw away stuff, we flush it away, it seems to vanish from our sight, but it never goes away. It’s karma.

Kendra Pierre-Louis, in Popular Science: “Despite their distance from the surface—and all of humanity—all of the samples tested positive for PCBs and PDBEs. They’re classes of chemicals so toxic that an international treaty restricts their use. The United States banned the use of PCBs in 1979, but they still persist in some products, especially vintage electronics, and in the environment.”

She also reports, “Their presence in the Mariana Trench is evidence of one of the many concerning traits of POPs: They can travel great distances. These compounds generally don’t dissolve well in water, but favor sticking to the surface of materials like plastic—tiny particles of which rain down onto the deepest parts of the ocean, Carrington writes. Many creatures mistakenly eat this colorful but toxic confetti, causing the POPs to build up in the critter’s body, lurking in their fat tissues.”


As plastics have become more and more common – especially the single-use plastic that is used in packaging – they have entered the world’s oceans in vast quantities. That facial scrub that promises you smooth soft (sometimes even lighter!) skin and that toothpaste that promises extra cleaning power … they probably contain plastic microbeads.

Scientists at the Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Aquatic Ecology at Ghent University in Belgium have produced a very detailed, and alarming, report on the havoc that plastics are causing:

“Today, 27 years after Cpt. Charles J. Moore first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, marine plastic pollution continues to be a growing threat to the marine environment. As plastic debris is ubiquitous across the world’s seas and oceans, the consequences of macroplastics for most (vertebrate) wildlife have been identified over the years.

“Yet, to date, the impacts of microplastics are less understood. These plastic particles (< 1mm), which are found in cosmetics and can be formed through the degradation of larger plastic items, are becoming increasingly abundant.

“As our research has shown, they can now be found from the surface layer all the way down to the deep-sea sediment. Worryingly, microplastics can be ingested by a wide range of marine organisms because of their small dimensions which in turn creates an understudied risk of exposure for human consumers.

“[In our report] we present the first study to report on the possible consequences of marine microplastics for human consumers by analyzing the occurrence of microplastics in commercially available shellfish. From our results, we calculated that the average European shellfish consumer has an uptake of 6400 microplastics per year. As there is a lack of (mammal) effect studies, this exposure poses an unknown risk for human health.”

Citizen geographers

One might ask, “I am a pure vegetarian, why should I care?” The food web is called a web precisely because everything is interconnected – in space (geography) and in time (history). Both as polluters and consumers everyone is affected.

The problem seems so large and overwhelming. Have things gone so far and so big that you and I as individuals can do nothing about it? The magnitude of the problem as we read about it seems overwhelming. It is. However, any action to address the situation has at the individual level and spread. That’s how a movement starts.

One place to start would be to become more aware of what we consume and try to do what we can to reduce our contribution to pollution. We could also consider joining groups of people who are actively promoting a less-polluting life.

It comes down to caring. Feeling despondent can only lead to debilitating inaction. But if we care, we can act. In small ways in our own lives. As the saying goes, ‘little drops of water make the mighty ocean.’


Featured image, courtesy: Popular Science (

A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 16 February 2017

Join us for Citizen Geographers

International Geography Youth Summit – 2017

7 – 9 July 2017, Bengaluru

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