Most of us have heard about the problem of plastic in the oceans, but, how much does it actually touch us?
Do we ever ask ourselves what this mess of plastics, and other human trash found in the oceans, might mean about our deepest relationship to the planet or to ourselves?
The impact of plastic in the ocean is a big question, and is still being researched (and argued) by ecologists, scientists, marine biologists, and others across the planet.
What we do know is that two of the most common causes of habitat loss in the oceans are from oil spills and industrial and residential waste, which include plastics washing into the ocean.
Most people don’t understand how delicate marine systems are in our global ecosystem.
The damage to, or removal of, a single species in an ecosystem can significantly impact many other species on the land and in the water, or even devastate the ecosystem. Since the oceans cover such a large percentage of the earth and are interconnected ultimately as one body of water, what happens in one part of the ocean can impact other parts very quickly.
The accumulated plastics and trash found in the oceans devastate wildlife, beaches, and nature preserves, and accumulate in “ocean landfills.”
Some of the trash is decades old. Some beaches are buried under five to ten feet of trash, while other beaches are riddled with “plastic sand,” millions of grain-like pieces of plastic that are practically impossible to clean up.
Here are some facts about the impact of plastic in the oceans:
- Plastic particles in the ocean are mistaken for food and eaten by sea birds and other sea creatures.
- Plastic bags floating in the oceans, and other plastic waste washed into the oceans get wrapped around living coral reefs, causing them to smother and die.
- Plastic pieces can attract and hold hydrophobic elements like PCB and DDT up to one-million times background levels. As a result, floating plastic is like a poison pill.
- The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic (source: UN Environment Program).
- Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean. Seventy percent of that eventually sinks, damaging life on the ocean floor (source: Greenpeace).
- The rest floats; much of it ends up in gyres, large circulating ocean currents, and form massive garbage patches within these currents, with some plastic eventually washing up on shores in coastal areas.
Massive ocean landfills are one of the devastating results of plastics in the ocean!
Four-fifths of marine trash comes from land. It is made up of 90% plastic and collects together to form a giant trash mass.
The most common marine trash mass of this type is known as the Pacific Garbage Patch. This huge mass of trash is the largest landfill in the world, two times the size of Texas with 7 billion pounds of plastic, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific Garbage Patch is in a gyre. A gyre is a large circular ocean current, created by high-pressure air currents that pick up anything nearby, gradually pushing everything towards the center of the gyre, in a clockwise or counter-clockwise spin.
The North Pacific Garbage patch is most talked about, probably because it is the largest, but there are actually gyres, and hence garbage patches, in every ocean body. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. In addition, the Pacific Garbage Patch has actually given birth to two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, sometimes collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“25 percent of our planet or 40% of our oceans is a toilet that never flushes” says Captain Charles Moore, the scientist who discovered the Pacific Garbage Patch.
Where is all this plastic in the ocean coming from?
- As part of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, on a single day in 2007, nearly 400,000 volunteers around the world picked up more than 6 million pounds of trash. A majority of the items were single-use disposable plastic items, such as plastic bags and Styrofoam containers.
- Each year, enough trash—most of it plastic—floats down the Los Angeles River to fill the Rose Bowl two stories deep. (Los Angeles Times, “Altered Oceans”)
- Since water keeps the plastic cool and algae blocks ultraviolet rays, every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that has flowed into the ocean is still out there somewhere. (Research Triangle Institute)
- Plastic pieces outweigh surface zooplankton in the Central North Pacific by a factor of 6 to 1. (Algalita Marine Research Foundation)
- Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris found most often in coastal cleanups. (Center for Marine Conservation)
What can we do about the plastic in the ocean?
Well, first of all, we can do everything we can to stop using plastics that could end up in the ocean.
We can make the simple change to stop using single-use plastic bags, by replacing them with sustainable options like Hands On Hemp reusable bags, and we can try to always buy products in glass and other sustainable materials.
We can make conscious and consistent choices away from plastic whenever possible.
We can question the materialism of our western culture and make changes in our own life while encouraging and supporting others making changes in theirs.
We can also support organizations that help with ocean cleanup.