OCEAN SOUP 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 news. 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 albatross. 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. PCBs 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 problem.” 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?