We've all seen it: the odd piece of garbage strewn at a beach. Whether it be a can, net, container, utensil, or even a full-sized garbage bin, almost all of us have experienced some kind of plastic coming from the ocean. It pollutes beaches, rivers, streams, and coastlines, hurting everything it comes into contact with along the way. While most of us have seen this type of pollution on a small scale, or in individual incidents, the true scale of the problem is a much larger, more frightening reality. From dead sea turtles, to dead economies, the plastic (and other garbage) in our oceans lay waste to a multitude of different, equally important aspects of our Earth. So, let's learn a bit more about plastic pollution, and what elements of our lifestyle contribute to it.
Ocean plastic pollution is a global problem, there's no denying it. It's estimated that, in total, about 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. That would be enough plastic grocery bags to line all of the coastlines in the entire world, produced every single year. From the United States, to China, to England, there remains some form of plastic pollution. Even areas that may have never produced a single piece of plastic in their entire existence still feel the effects of this issue. When a piece of plastic enters the ocean, strong currents can carry it all around the world, meaning places that have done nothing wrong feel the same effects as those that have.
These currents play a role in creating another important issue within the realm of plastic pollution: garbage patches. Gyres, or circular currents within various parts of the oceans, draw lots of plastic (and other garbage) into it, creating a whirlpool-like effect. These patches, with most of the garbage being underwater, can span for millions of miles, hurting almost all wildlife that try to live inside. In total, there are five of these patches that we know about: the Indian Ocean Patch, the North Atlantic Patch, the North Pacific Patch, the South Atlantic Patch, and the South Pacific Patch. But what exactly does this plastic do to make it such a terrible problem?
Effects on Animals
Consumption- hundreds of thousands of animals consume plastic that's dumped into the ocean. Why? Well, it looks, and in some cases, even smells like food they normally eat. For some sea turtles, plastic bags look startlingly similar to jellyfish. And for seabirds, the algae that normally grows on plastic fools them into thinking that it surrounds actual food. When marine animals like these consume this plastic, many negative things begin to happen. Obviously, because they can't digest plastic, it can block actual food from being digested. Animals that have consumed plastic can starve to death, and many of them actually do. Additionally, plastic can scratch and tear the inside linings of these animal's organs, leading to internal bleeding that often turns fatal.
Movement Restriction- we've all seen pictures of the penguins with plastic bottle holders around their necks. Animals getting caught in plastic pollution is a well-known phenomenon, but one that's a lot worse than it looks. When animals get caught in plastic, it can prevent them from being able to properly catch and eat food, leading to eventual starvation. And, if the animals get caught at a young age, the plastic can actually affect their growth, leading to increased pain and possible deformations.
But of course, plastic doesn't just affect the animals.
Effects on Humans
Chemical Collection- many types of plastics, even after long periods of time, continue to absorb harmful chemicals, specifically Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) like polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. They've got complicated names, but very simple, and negative, effects. As plastic absorbs these chemicals, and continues to be eaten by marine wildlife, we feel the effects too. Whenever we eat seafood, the plastic contaminants that are likely within the fish (or other animal) are then transferred to us, which can contribute to disease and other forms of sickness.
Economic Disruption- when plastics and other forms of ocean trash collect on beaches, it can lead to negative results in the economy of certain areas too. No one wants to go to a beach littered with trash, and for some beaches, even picking up the entirety of it every day isn't enough to keep all plastics out. As a result, some beaches have begun to lose attendance, and the funds that this attendance would normally provide has begun to dwindle.
So we know the effects, but how exactly does this plastic get in the ocean? And, furthermore, what kinds of plastic items are the most responsible for this pollution? Well, put simply, most of the plastic currently in the ocean got their as a result of mass-dumpings. That's right: we did this on purpose. Many countries, most notably those without proper waste disposal systems, simply dump their used plastic into the ocean, leaving it out of sight and out of mind. The worst culprits of this are countries like China and Indonesia, although the U.S. is up there too. Here are some of the most commonly found plastic items within the oceans:
Straws- plastic straws, with about 500 million being used and disposed of every day, are a major part of ocean pollution. They can be consumed, and can even get stuck in various parts of marine organisms (as shown above).
Plastic Bags- mentioned before, the plastic bags we use at grocery stores also often end up in the oceans, where they can cause serious problems for animals like sea turtles.
Plastic Utensils- when eaten, these single use plastics can cut the organs of marine wildlife, leading to internal bleeding and death.
Plastic Bottles- this plastic item, like many others, often harbors harmful bacteria and chemicals, that, when ingested, cause serious issues for organisms. They can also cause the spread of harmful bacterial diseases to countries that have never experienced them before.
And these are just a few of the many items involved.
So, while we may not see the effects of it every day, ocean plastic pollution is an immense and seemingly insurmountable problem. With millions of tons of it being dumped into the ocean each year, it's almost impossible to imagine how we would begin to collect the trillions of pieces already out there. And, as it continues to kill marine wildlife, and come around to bite us too, the need for a solution to the garbage becomes all the more necessary. All hope is not lost, however, as there are many things we as individuals can help. But, before I get to the solutions, there's one type of plastic that we need to talk about. It's small, so small we can't see it, but it's causing major problems. If we ever hope to fix the plastic problem, then there's one type we have to target: microplastics.
All credit for the information used in this post goes to the following sources: