The Perils of Plastic!
On Pagan Island [between Hawaii and the Philippines] they
have what they call the "shopping beach". If the islanders
need a cigarette lighter, or some flip-flops, or a toy, or a ball
for their kids, they go down to the shopping beach and pick
it out of all the plastic trash that's washed up there from
thousands of miles away.
Charles Moore
Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Ocean plastics have the ability to attract persistent organic
pollutants (POPs) like DDT, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), and
dioxin. Highly toxic POPs exist (and persist) at low levels
throughout the oceans, but plastic polymers act as sponges
that can concentrate POPs at levels up to one million times
greater than the surrounding seawater. As animals ingest these
fat-soluble POPs, rather than being secreted the toxic matter is
stored in the animal (bioaccumulation). Then the process
continues on down the line as the toxin is stored in the body of
the animal that eats the first animal. This cycle repeats
continuously. When the big ones eat a lot of little ones the
principle of biomagnification predicts that POPs will
concentrate in the fatty tissues of higher-level marine
predators. In fact, high levels of PCB are being found in toplevel predators such as dolphins and orcas. Marine biologists
believe this might explain the alarming increase of cancer in
these beloved species.
More than one billion tons of plastic have been manufactured over the last
fifty years; and every bit, except for a small amount that has been
incinerated, remains somewhere in the environment. Plastic clogs our
landfills. The ubiquitous plastic bags the Chinese call “white pollution” litter
landscapes around the world. In 1997 when Charles Moore brought
international attention to a massive patch of plastic trash he discovered
swirling in the North Pacific, we began to realize just how much plastic
ends up in the ocean.
North Pacific Gyre
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Sensationalized press reports of
Moore’s findings painted a compelling
image of a Texas-sized island of trash
floating between Hawaii and
California in an area of rotating
currents oceanographers call the
North Pacific Gyre. The Great Pacific
Garbage Patch, as it has come to be
known, is less visually-impressive
today but has more troubling
implications. Much of the surface area
of the GPGP is relatively free of
floating trash - the bigger problem lies
beneath the surface.
Plastic for dinner?
Plastic is extremely slow to degrade in
the ocean. If it remains in the water long
enough, the sun and wave action break it
into smaller and smaller pieces that sink
below the surface. These pieces combine
with the water to create an “ocean soup.”
The plastic extends as far as 100 meters
below the surface and, in some areas, is
six times more plentiful by weight than
plankton. Broken-down plastic particles
can eventually be reduced to a size that
can be ingested by even tiny
zooplankton. “Every size of organism,
every creature in the food web in the
ocean, from the smallest filter feeders to
the largest whales, is consuming plastic,”
according to Moore.
The plastic trash that floats in the currents of
the North Pacific Gyre and other major gyres
worldwide has visible and lethal effects on
aquatic life and seabirds. Derelict (abandoned)
fishing nets ensnare and kill fish, birds, sea
turtles, and sea mammals. Six-pack rings used
to hold canned drinks are another well-known
offender, as are floating plastic bags which sea
turtles fatally mistake for the jellyfish they
love to munch. Photos of decomposing
pelican carcasses with a double-handful of
bottle caps and disposable lighters where
their stomachs were originally found are a
recurring image in the press.
The nurdle is a major contributor to plastic
pollution worldwide. Polymer resins, the raw
material for plastic, are stored and shipped
in the form of lentil-sized pellets. More than
two hundred billion pounds of these pellets,
or nurdles in industrial terms, are shipped to
thousands of manufacturing facilities around
the world each year. Nurdles have an
uncanny knack for escaping captivity as
millions of pounds are lost into the
environment annually. Because they are
lightweight and buoyant, spilled nurdles are
easily blown or washed into storm drains,
sewers, and waterways. Many nurdles find
their way to the ocean where they have
become a deadly form of pollution for birds
and fish that mistake them for food. Nurdlepacked fish remains have also been in the
Plastic Bags = Enemy!
Plastic can be formed into extremely
thin, featherweight bags that are
strong, waterproof, and cheaper than
their paper counterparts. Huge
numbers of these “urban
tumbleweeds” are blown about in
the slightest breeze and find their
way to the waterways and eventually
the oceans. These plastic bags are
among the most commonly found
debris in coastal cleanups. Experts
estimate that as many as 1 trillion
plastic bags, more than a million per
minute, are consumed and discarded
annually worldwide.
Plastic Water Bottles= Enemy!
Americans, the biggest consumer of disposable plastic drink
bottles, use two million plastic bottles every five minutes. Like
plastic bags, they end up water-bound in massive numbers. The
caps are especially deadly to large sea birds like the endangered
An invisible, but potentially more dangerous
and far-reaching environmental problem
involves toxic chemicals related to plastic
pollution in the oceans. As plastics degrade,
they release potentially dangerous additives
and byproducts into the water. Japanese
researchers found these substances,
including BPA, used in the manufacturing of
polyethylene plastic in water samples taken
across the globe. BPA is a known endocrine
disrupter with potential to affect the
hormone systems of animals, including
humans. BPA is also known to affect the
reproductive systems of fish.
POP= Persistent Organic Pollutants
PCB is a particularly nasty POP whose manufacturing
has been banned in most countries for over 20 years.
Researchers are looking hard at the relationship
between plastic pollution and the level of PCB in the
ocean food chain, with an eye to the possible
implications for another high-level predator and
consumer of fish - humans. It has been found that
POPs can accumulate and persist in the human body
for decades.
Plastic microbeads are used as
exfoliating additives in skin cleansers.
After being washed down the drain,
these tiny particles are small enough to
pass through water treatment filters
into waterways and the oceans!
Because they are small enough to be
eaten by zooplankton and made of POP,
microbeads are an ideal delivery vehicle
for PCB to enter the base of the ocean’s
food chain. University of Auckland
researchers believe microbeads in the
ocean will soon become a “huge
According to experts, research into the
ocean’s plastic pollution is still in its
infancy and not adequately funded.
Much of the research is conducted by
private foundations. Currently no
feasible way to remove the tiny
particles of plastic from the water
column exists; however, some are
experimenting with methods to remove
trash in ways that are economically
sustainable and will not worsen
environmental problems.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has
surveyed the potential for cleaning up the GPGP, but aside from a
program to remove derelict nets NOAA has focused its efforts on
studying and monitoring the situation. Experts refer to significant
“knowledge gaps” in our understanding of ocean pollution and its
implications for the future. The effects of ocean plastic on marine life
that ingest it and the humans consuming the marine life are currently
poorly understood.
Experts stress that the first step for
addressing the oceans’ plastic pollution
is to stop adding to the problem. Eighty
percent of the plastic in the oceans
originates on land; the remainder
comes from ships. We are currently
adding trash to the gyres at a rate that
would dwarf any cleanup efforts. Plastic
bags and drink bottles contribute more
to the problem than any other
products. The simplest and most
effective action consumers can take is
to resist the “throwaway culture” and
stick to reusables wherever possible.
Recycling is an important part of the environmentalists’ mantra,
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle; but the recycling of plastic is
problematic. It cannot be recycled as efficiently or as costeffectively as paper, metal, or glass. Only a small percentage of
plastic actually gets recycled, with plastic shopping bags
recycled the least. Recycled bags are often used to manufacture
non-recyclable products such as carpeting (sometimes referred
to as downcycling). A newer generation of plastic products
should provide enhanced biodegradability, but their recyclability
and environmental benefits, especially in the ocean
environment, are subjects of controversy.
A Boat made from Water Bottles!
High visibility projects like the San
Francisco-to-Sydney voyage of the
PlastikI, a sailboat made from
recycled plastic bottles, are
intended to raise awareness
about an issue that is still barely a
blip on the public’s radar screen.
This lack of awareness is
understandable, yet scientists are
amazed that the dimension of the
problem went undetected for so
long and is still not close to being
fully understood.
The scale of the task and the
possibility of collateral
environmental damage have
discouraged serious efforts to clean
up the North Pacific Gyre and other
gyres. Marcus Ericksen, an
oceanographer with extensive first
hand knowledge of the issue, thinks
the best strategy is to focus on
beaches. "Beach clean-ups are gyre
clean-ups. Gyres kick out trash
constantly to nearby islands and
mainland shores. And if we can stop
adding more, that is the solution."
Beach clean-ups, of course, have
the added advantage of
intercepting some land-based litter,
the major source of ocean
pollution, before it can be carried
out with the tides.
What is the Future of our Oceans?
Plastic has been described as the
“infrastructure of consumer
society” and has created some
very important problems to be
solved: How might we evolve
from throwaway consumerism to
a more sustainable model that
uses plastic in ways that do not
add stress to oceans already
under assault from climate
change, acidification, and
overfishing? How can we
encourage the required changes
in personal behavior?
What can YOU do?
How can we determine the
proper balance of personal
responsibility and regulation?
How can we decide the proper
balance of corporate
responsibility and regulation?
How might we foster essential
international cooperation for
mitigation efforts related to
plastic ocean pollution? Finally,
how might we prepare for
potential loss of fish stocks, a
major protein source for billions?

On Pagan Island [between Hawaii and the Philippines] they