What Has Happened to the Ocean’s Plastic Trash?

By: Elizabeth Paulat


Many of us have seen the photos of plastic refuse in the ocean, the large islands of bags and waste that collect at tidal crossroads. Yet when scientists took a survey of the ocean earlier this year, they found a suspicious amount had disappeared. Was it just our good luck that pollution was decreasing? Hardly. It had simply been sinking, breaking apart and embedding itself in the sediment.

Fibers of microplastic, which are similar in diameter to a human hair, have sunk into deep water reserves across the world. For every bag floating across the ocean’s surface, there’s much more of the stuff laying in the ocean floor underneath. How much plastic is there? Well, according to the research, it’s so widespread that they’ve estimated microplastic is on every kilometer of the sea floor across the globe.

The study doesn’t mince words on what the problem is:

“Plastics are extremely durable synthetic polymers, yet more than 30% are made into disposable items such as packaging, which are typically discarded within a year of manufacture. The associated throw-away culture has led to an escalating plastic waste management problem, and widespread accumulation of plastic debris in the natural environment. Debris is now present on shorelines and at the sea surface from pole to pole.”

Plastic, which we most commonly see on the surface of coastal waters and beaches, can hurt marine life. Seabirds, sea turtles, seals and fish all die from plastic ingestion as well as getting tangled in debris. However, what effect could these plastic strands have on deep sea ocean life? Well, as you can imagine, it is not good.

Although deep sea entanglement isn’t much of an issue due to the small size of the microplastics, ingestion poses a huge problem for marine animals. Because plastics can ‘get stuck’ in the stomachs of some marine creatures, the more plastic that is ingested, the more the stomach ‘shrinks.’ This means that animals can actually starve to death because their stomachs can no longer hold the amount of food necessary to sustain life. Even worse, bags can become a magnet for toxins and cancer-causing chemicals, meaning that if a fish ingests the plastic, and we ingest the fish, we also ingest the harmful substances.

The report notes that because of the harm this microplastic poses, it ought to be a “worldwide concern.”

Although many cities in the United States have created ordinances to cut down on plastic bags, the issue revolves around the difficulty petroleum-based plastics have in disintegrating. Creating and using biodegradable and compostable plastics obviously needs to become more widespread. The most popular resin for the bio-plastic base is corn starch. Yet none of this is actually news as bioplastics have been around for generations and we’ve just failed to integrate them into our lives.

Part of the reason is the complicated language surrounding biodegradable and compostable plastics (which by the way, are not the same thing and should not be confused). They also don’t come without environmental implications, dangerous chemicals and, oh here’s the big one, they cost more.

So instead, we’ve littered the floors of the oceans with long strings of plastics that will never disintegrate. It’s an unfortunate reality that oceanographer Kara Lavender Law put succinctly: “The more we look, the more we find.” This sad reality might become part of the new normal for oceans the world over.


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