Bal Tashchit בל תשחית (literally “Do Not Destroy”) is a fundamental ethical principle in Judaism. It is based on the Mitzvah in Deuteronomy 20:19–20 which says it is forbidden to cut down fruit trees. The Talmud expanded the concept of Bal Tashchit to include all forms of senseless damage or waste. It has become a central aspect of the ethical character of the Jewish people. Today, the destruction of the ocean and waterways of the world through pollution, single-use plastic products, and simple carelessness represent a blatant violation of the ethical principle of Bal Tashchit.
As we dive, snorkel, boat, kayak, or just stroll the beach enjoying the beauty of the sea, all too often we are accosted by human garbage. Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are littered with the cast-off rubbish of humans.
The trash in our daily lives does not stay where we intend it to go. Over 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources. Pieces of litter fall into storm drains and make their way to our seas. Similarly, items that blow into a river wash hundreds of miles to the big blue. Other forms of marine debris come from sea-based sources. Boats purposely or accidentally dispose of garbage at sea, or fishery boats don’t properly ensure their nets and lines make it back to shore. Plastic is one of the most common items found in marine environments.
We have no concrete knowledge on how much trash is in our waters, because of the immense size of the ocean, and the fact that so much debris falls to the ocean floor.
Marine animals can often mistake trash as prey, or accidentally ingest microplastic. The smallest organisms (plankton), the largest animals (blue whales), the ecosystem (coral reefs), the apex predators (sharks), and everything in between has been affected by marine debris. 100% of sea turtle species, 25% of seafood market fish, and 59% of sea birds have been found to be contaminated by plastic through ingestion. The chemicals from the trash can bioaccumulate through the food chain, resulting in high quantities of toxins in marine mammals and sharks. However, the perils of trash don’t stop there. Debris such as nets and lines can entangle and smother organisms and ecosystems. Derelict fishing gear, often resulting in ghost nets, can continue to catch fish and other animals as they drift along the sea.