The world is awash in plastic. It’s in our cars and our carpets, we wrap it around the food we eat and virtually every other product we consume; it has become a key lubricant of globalization — but it’s choking our future in ways that most of us are barely aware.
Plastics biodegrade exceptionally slowly, breaking into tiny fragments in a centuries-long process. It entangles and slowly kills millions of sea creatures; that hundreds of species mistake plastics for their natural food, ingesting toxicants that cause liver and stomach abnormalities in fish and birds, often choking them to death. We know that one of the main bait fish in the ocean, the lantern fish, eats copious quantities of plastic fragments, threatening their future as a nutritious food source to the tuna, salmon, and other pelagic fish we consume, adding to the increasing amount of synthetic chemicals unknown before 1950 that we now carry in our bodies.
As more scientific data surfaces, more experts are concluding that plastic pollution could pose an even greater threat to the environment and public health than climate change.
Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface. The area known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts.
Plastic Pollution Kills Marine Life
Our oceans are so saturated with plastic pieces that sea life often mistake plastic for food. Algalita research shows an overwhelming amount of plastic in the stomach contents of albatross, marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and other marine life. The problem is compounded by the aquaculture industry, which uses enormous amounts of plastic in its floats, nets, lines and tubes. Monofilament fishing lines, packing bands, nets and other plastic items are fatal for sea life. Too often, seals, dolphins and other animals get caught or entangled in man-made objects and end up suffocating or drowning. They may die from infected wounds or they may survive and become disfigured.
Plastic Pollution Wreaks Havoc on the Marine Ecosystem
Floating pieces of plastic are the new artificial habitats for ocean organisms. During our most recent voyage, we discovered a “trash island” roughly 80 feet long made up of ropes, buoys and other plastic debris. A wide variety of species were clinging to life in this artificial habitat, from algae to nearshore creatures like anemones, to large subtropical reef fish aggregations lost at sea, a thousand miles from land and the environments they were designed to live in.
More research is needed to determine the consequences of the changing marine ecosystem scientists are now calling “the plastisphere.”
Plastic Pollution Threatens Human Health
Plastic acts as a magnet to oily pollutants already in the ocean. A recent study by Chelsea Rochman, a post doctoral researcher at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, looked at how plastic particles may affected fish at the bottom of the food chain. After two months, she analyzed the fish to test their levels of persistent organic pollutants. Rochman found that chemicals transfer from the plastic to the fish and she saw a greater concentration in the fish that ate the plastic that had been in the ocean than the fish that had eaten the controlled diet or the clean plastic diet.
There is much more that remains unknown about the connection between plastic pollution and human health. Our team is expanding our research to find answers.
The Rapid Pace of Plastic Production
The weight of every man, woman and child on Earth is equaled by our plastic production every two years. As plastic manufacturing continues to grow and man-made debris continues to invade the ocean, the plastic pollution crisis is clearly one of the top threats to the planet.