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Plastics in the Ocean

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An Earth-shaking example of the plastic problem lies in the oceans, literally. Marine plastic pollution has reached epidemic proportions as indicated by the cutting edge, powerful research being carried out by such organizations as the Algalita Marine Research Institute and The 5 Gyres Institute.

The amount of plastic debris in the marine environment is vast and ubiquitous, ranging from the polar regions to the Equator, and seriously affecting wildlife:  At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris - most of which is plastic - including seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and fish.

The following excerpt from the recent article "The Plastiphere - The Making of a Plasticized World," by Markus Eriksen, Research Director of The 5 Gyres Institute, describes the current scale and ubiquity of the marine plastic pollution problem:

Plastic pollution is the dominant type of anthropogenic material found in the oceans. Though other types of materials are found in the marine environment (such as glass floats, bottles, light bulbs and tubes, metal cans and derelict traps, and cut wood), 60 to 80% of marine debris is estimated to be plastic. Through degradation by sunlight, biodegradation, chemical and mechanical degradation, plastics fragments disperse globally, accumulating in massive circular currents called subtropical gyres, where wind and waves slow down toward the centers. Microplastics less than 5 mm to macroplastics of all sizes above have been reported since the early 1970s in the subtropical gyres of the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and outside the gyres in nearshore environments. They have also been found in estuaries, lakes, closed gulfs, bays, and seas.  [Emphasis added.]

Plastic bullet in North Atlantic

The precise fate of plastic pollution in the oceans is not yet known for certain, but Eriksen and others have plenty of ideas and proof of where some of the estimated 1.8 millions tons of plastic pollution in the subtropical gyres ends up:

  • Plastics wash ashore on coastlines and island environments - thus requiring massive clean-up efforts, or simply breaking down further on land.
There is no reason to suspect the amount of plastic being deposited in the oceans is decreasing. The recent research voyage by The 5Gyres Institute in the North Atlantic Ocean found plenty of plastic in every collection trawl they did.

Furthermore, the Algalita Marine Research Institute has indicated that their current Pacific Ocean research voyage is finding more and more plastic islands. Take a look at the Algalita blog to get an idea of what they're finding. The voyage leader, Captain Charles Moore, is credited with key initial discoveries of ocean plastic pollution, including the commonly termed "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" and this is his take:   
 
"I can't find words adequate to express the huge increase in the amount of plastic we are getting in our manta trawls and that pass by the boat since I last sampled here in 2009."
 
What is abundantly clear from all this cutting edge research is that plastic is everywhere in the oceans in varying sizes and concentrations.  What needs to be better understood is what happens to plastic once it enters the oceans. And obviously, what needs to be done is to prevent plastic from even entering water environments in the first place.
 
(Photo credit: 5Gyres.org)


 

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