Plastic Pollution In Oceans – The Problem

Try this: Enter “plastic pollution oceans” into your search engine of choice, then click on pictures – still smiling? Thousands of tons of plastic enter our oceans every year. The effect on wildlife, economies and – ultimately – us cannot be denied and is immense.

marine debris on Hawaiian coast
marine debris on Hawaiian coast (Wikipedia)

Less than a hundred years ago plastic floating around in oceans, littering beaches and polluting birds, fish and other wildlife was unheard of. The waters were not clean back then either. But whatever the kind of pollution might have been in those days, at least it was something planet Earth and mankind could get rid of again, eventually. With plastic having turned up in our lives – and making it quite a bit easier on one end or the other – this has changed dramatically.

Convenience of using plastic

It is quite convenient using plastic. No need to wash up, simply throw it away. It’s cheap. Once out of sight, we also lose interest in that piece of plastic.

Inconvenient, however, is the long-term influence this action has. Plastic was meant to last forever, so throwing it into woods or water only moves it out of sight, not out of this world.

Plastic pollution, meaning what?

More than a third of all plastic is not being recycled, burnt or safely dug away. It cloggs waterways, damages ecosystems and enters the marine food web. Once it gets into the oceans through storms, rain, rivers or ships, some of it sinks to the bottom while other parts float on the surface. Sunlight and waves fragment this floating plastic into tiny particles, which will disappear some time in the future – 75.000 years from now, approximately.

the five gyres of plastic pollution in oceans
the five gyres of plastic pollution in oceans (cTheOceanCleanup)

Once the plastic is out in the ocean, the always present currents circulate not only water but also plastic around the world. Large systems of these currents, coupled with wind and the earth’s rotation, create “gyres”, massive, slow rotating whirlpools in which plastic trash can accumulate.

Gyres of plastic pollution

There are five major gyres in our oceans. The largest one is in the North Pacific with a size approximately twice the size of the United States. The gyres work similarly to your bath tub, with only a minor (well…) difference. The plastic will be circulated for years, fragmented, and pushed towards the gyre’s center. Once it is there, unlike in your bath tub, it won’t simply disappear in a Planet Earth sewer system. It will continue accumulating more and more plastic debris.

Plastic pollution as a danger to wildlife and humans

47 pieces of plastic in dead triggerfish cNationalGeographic
47 pieces of plastic in triggerfish (cNationalGeographic)

A long list of seabird and fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies. Very likely having mistaken it for food, this can lead to internal blockages, dehydration, starvation and, potentially, death. Plastic debris could jeopardize the survival of some species, and it is also a carrier of invasive species when floating around the oceans, threatening native ecosystems. Research is ongoing to find out the extent to which dangerous chemicals from this plastic debris work their way up the food chain, entering our bodies when we eat seafood.

Economic effects of plastic pollution

Mentioning the impact on wildlife and humans, the economic effects are quite often ignored when talking about plastic pollution. Worldwide enormous costs occur for cleaning beaches, waterways, repairing vessels, fishing gear, etc. – the total goes up to an estimated USD 13 billion per year!

Research is and will be going on for a long time, many questions are outstanding. One thing, however, is pretty clear from my perspective: This is not good (what an understatement).

In a separate post I have had a look at potential solutions. It is difficult, complex – but not too late. Things are moving, new ideas have come up, so we might just about get away with it.

Information is available on lots of sites, my post here is mainly based on those three:

5 gyres
The Ocean Cleanup
Coastal Care (with a very detailed and brilliant article on plastic pollution)

2 Replies to “Plastic Pollution In Oceans – The Problem”

  1. Thanks so much for a very important post. We’ve encountered this problem all over the world and it seems so overwhelming, but of course every gesture counts!

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