Plastic Ocean Pollution Crisis and Effects: Videos and Links on Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Enlargeable banner logo of Space and Ocean Exploration by Danny Quintana and the Global High Seas Marine Preserve.Vast areas of the oceans are polluted with plastics discarded from countries all over the world. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, info and videos below, is a massive collection of discarded plastic swept together by ocean currents which slowly break down into extremely small pellets, called micro bits, of deadly plastic that is consumed by fish and birds. Many island beaches have their beaches clogged with plastics from thousands of miles away that are proving deadly to marine life in those areas. This is an ecological disaster that keeps getting worse, thus making it imperative that the high consumption nations, largely responsible for this mess, come together with a solution for cleaning it up and seeing that ti doesn’t happen again. 

Algalita, Marine Research and Education, Inspiring Solutions to Plastic Pollution

2014 North Pacific Garbage
Island Expedition with Algalita

“I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on,”—Captain Charles Moore.

Overview

In July, our crew headed to one of the most polluted areas of the world. This place, 1,000 miles away from land, redefined Algalita’s mission and ignited a fire to study the plastic plague destroying our oceans. This is the North Pacific Gyre, home of the swirling vortex of plastic trash. For 30 days, our crew lived aboard the Oceanographic Research Vessel, Alguita, in order to get an extended, close-up view of the plastic debris in this famous accumulation zone. While at sea, we collected water samples from the same stations we sampled in 1999, 2008 and 2009.

We also studied how the increasing quantity of plastic debris has created new habitats—essentially “plastic reefs” where sea creatures have made their homes.  Although our field research is complete, there is much to accomplish in the lab. Please support our efforts by making a tax-deductible contribution and stay tuned for updates on our progress.

“How much plastic is there in the oceans?” Bill Francis

Accumulation of Plastic in the Marine Environments

About 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year (Jambeck et al., 2015).  5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 269,000 tons can be found floating in the global ocean. Most of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are small, between just 1mm and 4.75mm in size (Eriksen et al., 2014).  The accumulation of plastic in the ocean often concentrates around gyres, which are specific regions where oceanic currents converge (Maximenko et al., 2012).

These gyres have been documented in many regions of the world’s oceans and have become a focus of numerous marine studies to document the accumulation of floating plastic debris (NOAA, 2012).

  • North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (commonly called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Plastic debris that transports to this gyre accumulates and is likely to remain there. The true size and mass of the trash in the gyre is unknown, given that less research has been done here than in many of the others (NOAA, 2013).  In this gyre, there is on average six times more plastic than zooplankton by dry weight.  This ration indicates a high availability of harmful, unsuitable food items to potential consumers (Moore et al., 2001).
  • South Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Microplastic pollution up to 26,898 particles per km −2 has been documented in the South Pacific subtropical gyre (Eriksen et al. 2013).
  • North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre. The synthesis of 22 years of surveys to assess the density of plastic debris accumulating in this gyre yielded a maximum density of 580,000 pieces per square kilometer (Law et al., 2010). It has been estimated that 88% of plastic material found in this gyre was smaller than 10 mm long (nearly half the size of what was found in the 1990s), implying progressive degradation of plastic in the marine environment (Moret-Furgeson et al., 2010).
  • South Atlantic Gyre. Studies have yielded findings of between 1,300 to 3,600 plastic pellets per square kilometer (Morris, 1980; Barnes et al., 2005).
  • Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Straits of Malacca. Studies have revealed 18,000 counts of debris, with 98% of them being plastic, in over 3,275 km of transects (Ryan, 2013).
  • Western North Atlantic. A recent study showed a stabilizing concentration of plastic debris (Law et al., 2010). One speculation is that the rate of plastic entering oceanic gyres is now being matched by the rate that plastic is sinking from the surface, given that as plastic remains in the ocean and breaks down, it becomes more dense and thus more apt to diffuse throughout the water column.

The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch and Plastic Trash Island Disaster
   

The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution

Clean Water Action

Most marine debris (80%) comes from trash and debris in urban runoff, i.e. land-based sources. Key components of land-based sources include litter, trash and debris from construction, ports and marinas, commercial and industrial facilities, and trash blown out of garbage containers, trucks, and landfills. Ocean-based sources, such as, overboard discharges from ships and discarded fishing gear, account for the other 20%.

A net in Ballonna Creek in Los Angeles catches plastic pollution from rain runoff before it goes into the Pacific Ocean just south of Santa Monica. Food containers and packaging are the largest component of the municipal solid waste stream (80 million tons or 31.7 %). These items, together with plastic bags, also represent the largest component of marine debris (that is, barring items less than 5mm such as pre-production plastic pellets, fragments, and polystyrene pieces). Packaging and single use disposable products are not only ubiquitous in marine debris, they represent an unsustainable use of precious resources (oil, trees, energy sources, water).

The quantity of marine debris is increasing in oceans world-wide. Researchers at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation documented an increase in plastic debris in the Central Pacific Gyre five-fold between 1997 and 2007, where the baseline in 1997 showed plastic pieces outnumbered plankton on the ocean surface 6:1.

Off Japan’s coast, the quantity of pelagic plastic particles floating increased 10 fold in 10 years between the 1970s and 1980s, and then 10 fold every 2-3 years in the 1990s. In the Southern Ocean, plastic debris increased 100 times during the early 1990s. These increases in plastic debris occurred at the same time that worldwide production of plastic fibers quadrupled.

Sealion with plastic netting caught around its body.

In the ocean, plastic debris injures and kills fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species. The impacts include fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.

In 2010, a California grey whale washed up dead on the shores of the Puget Sound. Autopsies indicated that its stomach contained a pair of pants and a golf ball, more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves.

National Marine Center Rescue in San Francisco with Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Seabirds that feed on the ocean surface are especially prone to ingesting plastic debris that floats. Adults feed these items to their chicks resulting in detrimental effects on chick growth and survival. One study found that approximately 98% of chicks sampled contained plastic and the quantity of plastic being ingested was increasing over time.

Because persistent organic pollutants in the marine environment attach to the surface of plastic debris, floating plastics in the oceans have been found to accumulate pollutants and transport them through ocean currents. Floating and migrating plastic debris has also been found to transport invasive marine species. Increasingly, research shows that marine life that ingests plastics coated with pollutants can absorb these pollutants their bodies.

plastic-pollution-2Plastic debris is polluting the human food chain. In a 2008 Pacific Gyre Voyage, Algalita researchers began finding that fish are ingesting plastic fragments and debris. Of the 672 fish caught during that voyage, 35% had ingested plastic pieces.

The plastics industry, through the leadership of the American Chemical Council (ACC), spends millions of dollars each year to convince policy makers and Californians that solutions to plastic pollution lie in anti-litter campaigns that attribute the responsibility for marine debris on individual behavior. Yet they have devoted little funding to public education and much more on promoting policies that support increased use of plastics.

While increased public education to prevent littering is important, proper management of litter fails to address the unsustainable consumption of resources involved in producing packaging and single use disposable goods.

Furthermore, as the amount of disposable packaging and products continues to increase, controlling litter through public education and cleanup of streets and waterways requires significant and sustained funding.

Preventing the generation of disposable products as much as possible reduces the amount of money needed for controlling and managing trash and litter. Prevention is both cost-effective and better for the environment.