Plastic touches all of our lives, from the food packaging we buy to the computers we work with and the cars we drive. But many of the plastics you touch in your daily life are used only once and thrown away. So much of this plastic is ending up in the ocean, and in just a few years, we may end up with a pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the sea. The future of plastics in our ocean will be determined by the way we handle plastics on land.
The most common items polluting our beaches and waterways are 2.4 million cigarette butts, which contain plastic filters. They are followed by 1.7 million food wrappers and 1.6 million plastic water bottles.The world is creating more plastic trash each year and much of is ending up in landfills or in the environment and our oceans. A study by the University of California Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) found that 8 million metric tons of plastic trash end up in our oceans every year potentially harming marine animals and ecosystems.
Microplastics are small, barely visible pieces of plastic that pollute the environment. Microplastics are not a specific kind of plastic, but rather any type of plastic fragment that is less than five millimeters in length according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. Two classifications of microplastics currently exist. Primary microplastics are any plastic fragments or particles that are already 5.0 mm in size or less before entering the environment. These include microfibers from clothing, microbeads, and plastic pellets (also known as nurdles). Secondary microplastics are created from the degradation of larger plastic products once they enter the environment through natural weathering processes. Such sources of secondary microplastics include water and soda bottles, fishing nets, and plastic bags. Both microplastics persist in the environment at high levels, particularly in aquatic and marine ecosystems. Additionally, plastics degrade slowly, often over hundreds if not thousands of years. This increases the probability of microplastics being ingested, incorporated into, and accumulated in the bodies and tissues of many organisms. The entire cycle and movement of microplastics in the environment is not yet known, but research is currently underway to investigate this issue. Worsening matters, microplastics are common in our world today. In 2014, it was estimated that there are between 15 and 51 trillion individual pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans, which was estimated to weigh between 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons.
Take a stroll along any beach after a storm and you will get an idea of just how much litter is floating around in the world’s oceans: the sand is strewn with plastic bottles, fish boxes, light bulbs, flip-flops, scraps of fishing net and timber. The scene is the same all over the world since the seas are full of garbage. The statistics are alarming: the National Academy of Sciences in the USA estimated in 1997 that around 6.4 million tons of litter enter the world’s oceans each year. However, it is difficult to arrive at an accurate estimate of the amount of garbage in the oceans because it is constantly moving, making it almost impossible to quantify. A further complicating factor is that the litter enters the marine environment by many different pathways. By far, the majority originates from land-based sources. Some of it is sewage-related debris that is washed down rivers and the sea or wind-blown waste from refuse dumps located on the coast, but some of it comes from careless beach visitors who leave their litter lying in the sand. Shipping also contributes to the littering of the oceans: this includes waste from commercial vessels and leisures that is deliberately dumped or accidentally lost overboard and, above all, torn fishing nets. As most of the litter is plastic, which breaks down very slowly in water and may persist for decades or even centuries, the amount of debris in the marine environment is constantly increasing. Scientific studies have revealed regional variations in the amount of litter in the sea. In many regions, researchers have reported quantities of floating plastic debris in the range of 0 to 10 items of debris per square kilometer.
The great pacific garbage patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The patch is actually comprised of the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California.These areas of spinning debris are linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, located a few hundred kilometers north of Hawaii. This convergence zone is where warm water from the South Pacific meets up with cooler water from the Arctic. The zone acts like a highway that moves debris from one patch to another. The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into smaller and smaller pieces.For many people, the idea of a “garbage patch” conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes.The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean. About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year. The remaining 20% of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs, and large cargo ships that dump or lose debris directly into the water. The majority of this debris—about 79,000 tons—is fishing nets. More unusual items, such as computer monitors and LEGOs, come from dropped shipping containers. While many different types of trash enter the ocean, plastics make up the majority of marine debris for two reasons. First, plastic’s durability, low cost, and malleability mean that it’s being used in more and more consumer and industrial products. Second, plastic goods do not biodegrade, but instead break down into smaller pieces. In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into smaller and smaller pieces, a process known as photodegradation. Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—that’s about 1.9 million bits per square mile. Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups. Because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. Charles Moore, the man who discovered the vortex, says cleaning up the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country” that tried it. Scientists and explorers agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Organizations such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Plastic Oceans Foundation are using social media and direct action campaigns to support individuals, manufacturers, and businesses in their transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable or reusable materials.