It is the very nature of plastics- their stability and resistance to degradation- that causes problems after they are discarded.
- Because plastics do not react chemically with most other substances, they do not decay. They never completely “go away”.
- Plastics, also called polymers, are produced by the conversion of natural products or by the synthesis from primary chemicals generally coming from oil, natural gas, or coal. Plastics are basically solid oil.
- While oil spills are one obvious form of fossil fuel pollution, plastic pollution is a much bigger threat.
- In fact, plastic in the ocean has the potential to disrupt the entire food chain. The plastic in the ocean is the world’s biggest oil spill.
Where does it come from?
Nearly 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources. Most of this debris is carried to oceans via urban runoff through storm drains. Plastics in the ocean are broken down by sunlight, unlike plastics buried in landfills. When UV rays from sunlight strike plastic, they break the bonds holding the long molecular chain together. Mechanical action, like waves or current, also breaks the plastic into smaller pieces.
- Eventually, the plastic particles are broken down to microplastic size. Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm long, either from larger pieces that have broken down, or are manufactured ( e.g. micro-scrubbers ).
How much plastic? An estimated “275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean.” (“Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” by Jenna R. Jambeck et al., Science Feb. 13 2015 ). That’s in one year.
And it’s going to get worse. According to researchers, without waste management infrastructure improvements, the amount of plastic that could reach the ocean will increase by 10 times by the year 2025 (ibid.).
Where does it go?
- Some goes to beaches, where larger pieces accumulate and where smaller pieces become mixed with the sand, forever changing that environment.
- Some ends up in gyres. A gyre is a naturally occurring vortex of wind and currents that rotate in a clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere “These create a whirlpool effect, whose vortex moves more slowly at the center and that is where marine plastic debris collects.” (What is the Gyre, Environmental Cleanup Coalition)“
- One gyre in the North Pacific is often called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 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.” (Great Pacific Garbage Patch, National Geographic Encyclopedia)
- An estimated 10 % of the plastic in the ocean comes from derelict fishing gear. Plastic “ghost nets” not only continue to trap wildlife, they also destroy coral, like a destructive ocean tumbleweed.
Plastic nets can survive an estimated 600 years in a marine environment.
Unless steps are taken to manage this waste properly, by 2025 the ocean could contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of finfish —an unthinkable outcome.” By 2050, the ration of finfish to plastic could reach 1 to 1. (“Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean”, the Ocean Conservancy)
Albatross with stomach full of plastic. Midway Island, Pacific. Photo by Chris Jordan
Plastic bags can bear a striking resemblance to jellyfish underwater, and scientists have long known they have a tendency to confuse hungry sea turtles.
Most marine animals accumulate plastic in their bodies by feeding on fish that have ingested plastic fragments.
- All these creatures represent entry points into the ocean food web for toxins either placed in plastics during manufacturing or extracted later from seawater.
- In a process called bio-accumulation, toxic compounds build up in an organism at a rate faster than they can be broken down.
- Flame-retardants, aromatic hydrocarbons (from the oil plastic is made out of), Bisphenol A (BPA), and phthalates are often added to plastic during the manufacturing process.
- Plastics also take up (s0rb) and accumulate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) from surrounding water, such as carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting PCBs, PAHs and DDD, a derivative of DDT.
- All of these can be toxic at certain concentrations. For example, Bisphenol-A (BPA) has been identified as a chemical that disrupts hormones. Studies in animals have shown that BPA exposure is associated with early puberty in females, lower sperm counts, and increased susceptibility to reproductive tract cancers and altered brain development in males and females.
The constituents of plastics, as well as the chemicals and metals they sorb, can travel into the bodies of marine organisms upon consumption, where they may concentrate and climb the food chain, ultimately into humans.
These harmful substances wind up in the seafood we eat. We become subject to bio-accumulation ourselves. Photo Algalita Marine Research Institution
Better waste management practices are the key to keeping plastics from ever reaching the ocean.
Plastics in the ocean have dire and wide-ranging consequences, including:
- Plastic debris on seafloor bottom can smother the worms, clams, crabs, lobsters, sponges, and other tiny creatures that live there.
- A high accumulation of plastic debris can block the sun, preventing marine plankton and algae from receiving enough sunlight to produce nutrients. As these photosynthetic organisms are the base of the marine food chain, the whole chain is endangered
- Threat of “alien species” hitching a ride on plastic particles. Plastic can travel for long distances. Bio-invaders can be transported from one ecosystem to another.
- Plastic particles provide a surface on which marine species like the “sea skater” insect can lay their eggs. This has already resulted in a significant increase in the species’ egg density in the North Pacific Gyre, and could result in an imbalance in that ecosystem, a study by the Scripps Institute discovered.
Providence offers a solution that can keep plastic out of the ocean, converting it to a clean synthetic natural gas. See http://providencetrade.com/waste-to-energy/ Plastics contain at least as much energy as Wyoming coal.
Twenty-nine sperm whales were found stranded on shores around the North Sea in Germany. Although Plastic is not believed to have killed them, scientists were deeply disturbed by the amount of plastics they discovered in the animals’ stomachs
We have partnered with IINA Solutions to address the problem of plastic in the ocean. IINA Solutions is a non-profit humanitarian organization working to improve the quality of life (iina) for marginalized rural Navajo tribal members challenged by the lack of clean water, electricity, and lack of employment. IINA Solutions provides an alternative energy solution that meets the basic human needs including green job training and internships through solar, wind and energy efficiency solutions.
for further information, contact Lex Henkels, Elsa Johnson or Mark Snyder by clicking here