Plastic is alive and well on planet Earth. From the tiniest microsized particles to bottles and bags, plastic lives in our oceans, rivers, streams, landfills and in the bellies of sea critters. With recycling programs in almost every community across the U.S. and other countries, why do we have so much plastic pollution in our waterways?
Last updated March 22, 2017
We begin this journey at sea. In fact, let’s pretend for a moment we’re flying unassisted above the earth, gazing down at the oceans as we make our orbit. After circling the blue planet a few times, our first stop is the North Pacific Gyre, the largest ecosystem on earth.
Gyres are systems of circulating currents, where debris, both man made and natural, becomes easily trapped. The highest concentration forms near the center. Our oceans contain five gyres, but the North Pacific Gyre is the largest. It’s home to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch, located between Hawaii and California. The size of this area is estimated to be anywhere from the size of Texas to twice the size of the continental United States. But this is speculative. No one really knows its true size.
As we fly over a remote part of Hawaii, home to humpback whales, rare turtles, and colorful fish, plastics, such as toothbrushes, combs, bottles and caps, cover the beaches. And it’s a similar sight in other areas. Volunteers have collected cigarette butts, straws, stirrers, light bulbs, wigs, shopping carts, food wrappers and even lawn mowers. Both natural and man made debris become trapped in currents for years. But when the currents change, all this garbage washes up onto shorelines.
If you’re imagining something that looks like a dump out in the middle of the ocean, think again. You might see larger pieces of plastic floating by every now and then. But most of the plastic waste consists of microplastics, which are dispersed in the top layer of the ocean. They can’t be seen by satellites, or many times, even by divers. In reality, however, only 3 percent of plastic pollution lies within these highly publicized gyres. The rest is evenly dispersed throughout the oceans. Many microplastics have already sunk to the ocean floor. In fact, in the Mediterranean Sea, there are 1000 times more microplastics at the bottom than at the top.
Types of plastic pollution
So let’s take a look at the different kinds of plastic pollution and how they affect the environment, beginning with larger plastic fragments called macroplastics. Every year, 100,000 sea animals die from suffocating in plastic bags. Birds, turtles, whales, fish and other marine life inadvertently ingest plastic, many times mistaking it for food. In fact, albatross chicks out in the Pacific die from feeding on bottle caps and toys.
How does all this plastic end up in our oceans? In 1950, plastic production was estimated to be at 1.9 million tons and grew to reach around 330 million tons in 2013. Much of the plastic in our oceans comes from densely populated coastal areas. People thoughtlessly toss plastic waste into gutters, and also, illegal dumping occurs in rivers and lakes. On the Meuse River, which flows through France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, scientists counted 70,000 pieces of plastic per square meter. Of those, 500 were at least an inch or larger.
China ranks top on the list of countries responsible for plastic pollution. The US takes a disappointing 20th place, due in part to our densely populated coastal areas and our consumerism. In China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, only 40 percent of garbage actually gets collected. These countries combined create over half of plastic pollution. But the uncollected garbage is only three fourths of the problem. One fourth of all plastic pollution is due to poorly protected landfills built near waterways. Plastic easily escapes into rivers and streams, eventually reaching the sea. According to a report by the Ocean Conservancy, by 2025, our oceans might contain 3 tons of plastic for every 1 ton of fish.
But what happens to plastic after it’s exposed to the elements? Something to keep in mind is that toxic additives, such as phthalates and BPA, escape into the environment as plastics breakdown.
Eventually, the larger pieces become microplastics, which are plastics 5 mm or less in size, or just under a quarter of an inch or less. Plastic breaks into smaller fragments through the forces of wind and waves and also from ultraviolet light. However, most break down through photo-oxidation on land.
Microplastics in our food web
Microplastics enter our food web via zooplankton, which is a food source for both young and adult salmon. In the Strait of Georgia, scientists estimate that adult salmon ingest approximately 91 microplastic particles a day. Pollutants, which microplastics absorb, deposit in the tissues of various marine animals, which we and other animals end up consuming. Humpback whales could be ingesting up to 300,000 microplastic particles a day.
Researchers discovered microplastics in salt from Chinese markets, especially sea salt. China is the largest salt producer in the world, so there’s the potential for microplastics in our salt, also. But it’s important to stress that so far, scientists have only found microplastics in salt sold in China.
In mussels, microplastics cross from the digestive system into blood cells. They can also pass through the gills of crabs and fish. Belgian researchers found around 90 microplastic fragments in a typical order of mussels from German farms and French markets. It’s important to note that only a few studies suggest negative effects on marine life from ingestion of these tiny plastics. Not surprisingly, though, other studies correlate microplastics with inflammation in mussels and other sea animals. And in fish samples from California and Indonesian markets, one quarter contained microplastics and fibers in their stomachs. No one knows the implications for humans, yet, as these microplastics and their free riding pollutants drift up the food chain.
One type of microplastic is microbeads, which aren’t the result of plastics breaking down. Companies add these micro and nano sized plastic particles to cleaning products, scrubs, toothpastes and other beauty products. But, through the Micro-beads Free Water Act of 2015, companies must stop using microbeads in their products by July 2017. Even though this is an important piece of legislation, microbeads are not nearly as plentiful as microplastics, resulting mostly from the breakdown of plastics on our beaches. But microbeads are much more likely to escape wastewater treatment plants, ending up in our waterways and eventually in our oceans. And just like other microplastics, microbeads also attract pollutants.
The most abundant microplastics are fibers from synthetic clothing, which enter the sewers through our washing machines. Ecologist Mark Brown discovered that 1,900 fibers wash off a single synthetic garment. These fibers, unlike natural fibers, don’t break down for a long time. Interestingly, after contacting numerous apparel manufacturers to support his research, only Eileen Fisher responded. She provided a $10,000 grant to help him continue part of his work. Eileen Fisher sells clothing made mostly from natural fibers. Many scientists fear that microfibers are just as harmful to the environment as other microplastics. Marine animals can so easily consume these almost invisible strands.
A bird’s eye view
So let’s go back to our Eastern Pacific garbage patch and hover above it for a moment. Looking down into the ocean, you can see large pieces of plastic occasionally floating past.
Taking out your binoculars and looking into the top column of water, there’s a high concentration of multicolored microplastics. And if you happen to have an extra strong pair of binoculars, you’ll see microfibers and microbeads. As your eyes sweep across the ocean, the microplastics thin out a bit, but they’re still there.
Now, looking down at the sea floor (these are magical binoculars), you’ll see an abundance of microplastics there, also.
Leaving the North Pacific Gyre and flying across the U.S., the scene is a familiar one in the Great Lakes and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
And this, my friends, is the state of Earth’s waters.
Currently, we use 6 percent of global oil for plastic production. Without vast changes, that amount might increase to 20 percent by 2050. Communities collect only 14 percent of plastics for recycling. A mere 8 percent of this actually gets recycled. And here’s the clincher: plastic pollution in our oceans is increasing by eight million tons each year.
Agents of change
It’s only natural to feel a sense of hopelessness after seeing all the plastic pollution in our waters. But if everyone makes a commitment to reduce plastic use, one item at a time, we can make an impact on our oceans and our plastic economy. For ideas and tips on how to get started, take a look at these suggestions on reducing single-use plastic in addition to this resource page, which lists other websites and blogs at the bottom. A fun way to help reduce plastic is to make an easy no-sew reusable bag, instead of shopping with a plastic one. In my opinion, however, we’ll need to eventually gain support of local, national and international governments to truly clean up the world’s oceans.
But for now, let’s be agents of change, not despair.