Plastic And Ocean Pollution

Introduction

Plastic can be discovered almost everywhere on Earth, in the depths of oceans and even in Arctic ice (Parker). Shockingly, plastic can even be found on the moon, ever since 1969 when Neil Armstrong set up a nylon US flag on the astronomical body (“Plastic Surgery; Pollution”). It has become a highly favored substance, and is used widely on social and economic levels. However, due to its popularity and mass production, global demand has started around 5 million annually in the 1950’s, and has increased to around 300 million tons a year today (“Future of the Sea”).

40% of the plastic produced consists of plastic items which have a one-time use, such as straws and plastic shopping bags, and a large portion is at stake of winding up in ocean ecosystems (“Plastic not Fantastic”). While business owners see plastic as a crucial material in their business, and its efficiency can lead to a substantial amount of profit, environmentalists and oceanologists come to realize that plastic is making its way into the environment, and greatly damaging marine life and their habitats which poses a potential threat to people in the future.

Where Plastic is Coming From

A study had taken place ranking the top 20 ocean-bound trash producing countries, with China coming in at first and the United States coming in twentieth. The United states made the ranking due to its densely populated coastlines and because it is a leading product consumer as it is a rich country (Parker). Other leading countries include Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, which produce large quantities of ocean-bound garbage since there are largely impoverished areas in these countries with inhabitants who are more focused on survival than recycling. A majority of litter in the ocean originates from these top ranked countries, and is transported through inland waterways, wastewater systems, wind, and tides. Plastic makes up around 80% of this escaped litter, making its way into the ocean (“Plastic not Fantastic”).

Plastic in the Ocean

Ocean litter can be put into two major categories: objects used for fishing, including nets and lines, and single-use plastic items, including plastic bags, bottles, and bottle caps, and cigarette butts. Based on Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup, 83% of this litter is plastic (Wilcox). ‘Even if plastics degrade and seem to ‘disappear,’ they persist as microplastics and could cause harm to marine organisms that ingest them,’ explains Danielle Green, a member of the Biochemistry Research Group at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (“Plastic not Fantastic”). Due to oxidation, sunlight exposure, waves, and grazing by marine animals, plastics are then able to break down into much smaller pieces.

These small pieces of plastic will eventually negatively impact both marine life and their homes in possibly lethal terms. Also, Anna-Marie Cook, one of the leading scientists at EPA, says that ‘Slightly more than half of all plastic is negatively buoyant, meaning that it will sink upon reaching the ocean, either into the near-shore sediment environment or to the ocean floor’ (Seltenrich). This means that only around half of the plastic pollution in the ocean is visible, as the other half sink to their depths. A significant visual of the plastic that floats would be The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of ocean litter, and is considered to be double the size of Texas. Even if sixty-eight ships were working for ten hours a day for a year, less than one percent of the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch would be cleaned, according to NOAA (Parker).

Animals

Shockingly, plastic has been found inside the bodies of dead marine life, including fish, birds, and even whales (Seltenrich). Plastic particles end up inside marine life through indigestion. Commonly ingested debris include balloons and bottle caps (“Future of the Sea”). Animals can mistakenly ingest these plastics since they can look like their prey, or by consuming their prey which are contaminated. Since plastic cannot be digested or broken down, the plastic will sit in the stomach of the animal, progressively filling the stomach with more accidentally consumed plastic. Continuous accidental consumption of plastic can result in internal injuries and blockages, making the ingestion of plastic lethal (Duncan).

An additional possibly-lethal effect of plastics on marine life is entanglement. Turtles and seabirds are most commonly found tangled with plastic bags, fishing gear, or balloons (Wilcox). The reason for why entanglement can be considered lethal is because it can cause abrasions, loss of limbs, and an animals inability to move and avoid predators. Also, marine life can accidentally end up tangled as it is covered with plants and microorganisms over time and attracts animals like sea turtles, who inevitably become caught (Duncan). If entanglement and indigestion continue, an increase of mortality rates of commercially significant fish and marine life will increase, negatively affecting the economy (“Future of the Sea”).

One-Time Use Items

Although they may not seem to be much, plastic straws have a significant impact on plastic pollution. Every day, the United States uses 500 million straws, which is enough to circle the planet two and a half times (Romain). With this amount of straws produced every day, it is guaranteed that a portion of these straws will become litter and make their way to marine ecosystems in the ocean. Since they are so lightweight, they can be easily blown by the wind into sewage systems and streets, some being able to reach rivers, and eventually, the ocean.

A large majority of straws are made from plastic, which are water repellent, inexpensive, and strong while being lightweight. Kara Lavender Law, an ocean scientist at the Sea Education Association in Massachusetts, says that ‘Plastic is a great material for items that we want to last for a long time, but items like straws are used one time, become trash in a matter of minutes, and can stick around forever” (Romain). Instead of biodegrading like paper, plastic breaks down into microplastic which last for hundreds of years. Also, plastic straws have negatively affected marine life as sea turtles have ended up with straws in their nostrils, and seabirds and fish have ended up with straws lodged into their stomachs.

Plastic bags are another single use item that has caused environmental problems. Biochemist Danielle Green had conducted an experiment with plastic bags which showed that light, oxygen and nutrient flow cannot travel through plastic bags as they float on ocean water, reducing the production of microalgae below the bag. According to author Hailee Romain, no matter what size, single-use plastic items will cause significant damage to the ocean environment.

Conclusion

While some people prefer to see plastic as significantly beneficial to the economy as it is durable, light, and waterproof, people who take the environment into consideration believe that plastic has more disadvantages over advantages. Tons upon tons of plastic are increasingly entering the planet’s oceans, slowly killing off animals and their prey. This causes entire ecosystems to be disrupted, as well as plastic becoming a new participant in the food chain.

More research must be conducted on how plastic contamination travels up an ecosystem through consumption in order to prove that humans are affected my marine plastic pollution. To solve this issue, one must listen to a quote by Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Massachusetts: ‘What we have done is look at the other side of the equation—what’s coming out of the faucet, rather than what’s already in the bathtub’ (Parker). Instead of trying to clean up the continuously enlarging mess, it is crucial to stop the mess at its source.

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