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Plastics Clogging Our Oceans - September 13, 2015

    In 1997, Captain Charles Moore made a startling discovery; millions of pieces of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. These plastic pieces, along with other floating debris, form the Eastern Garbage Patch located between Hawaii and California. The Eastern Garbage Patch, along with the Western Garbage Patch, comprises the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is also known as the Pacific trash vortex. 

    These garbage patches are formed by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is a system of circular ocean currents. Due to the nature of the gyre, debris and trash from around the ocean is pulled into these garbage patches. The centers of gyres tend to be calm and thus the debris tends to accumulate there.

     The northern Pacific is not the only place oceanic garbage patches can be found. Garbage patches are forming in the five major ocean gyres; in addition to the North Pacific gyre there is the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Indian gyre where trash is accumulating. The Sargasso Sea, which is located in the North Atlantic gyre, and even smaller bodies of water are also forming their own garbage patches such as the North Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. 

    The common misconception is that these garbage patches are solid islands of floating trash. In truth they are actually patches consisting of billions of tiny plastic pieces called microplastics. Plastic is not biodegradable so as it ages it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, turning one large piece of plastic into lots of tiny microplastics. Larger debris is still present in the patches though, like fishing nets, buoys, and tires. 

    Now, what is the problem with all this trash and plastic? For one, the sheer number and amount of trash is alarming, to say the least. There are about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean and about 8 million metric tons of plastic debris enters the oceans each year. Some of this plastic remains at the surface but a large amount of the heavier plastics sink deep in the ocean or even to the ocean bottom where they can damage fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs. In addition to larger debris, microfibers of plastic are also accumulating on coral colonies. 

    Plastic at the surface can be just as detrimental as plastic at the bottom, if not more so. Microplastics can block sunlight from penetrating the water’s surface. This prevents sunlight from reaching plankton and algae in the water below, which can threaten their populations. These populations are a food source for other sea creatures such as fish, turtles, and baleen whales. A domino effect takes place; less plankton and algae means less lower food chain animals, which leads to a decline in apex predators such as tuna, sharks, and other whale species. 

    Surface debris can also be mistaken as food by marine animals. Sea turtles can mistake plastic bags and balloons for jellyfish; their preferred food source. Birds, like albatrosses, can mistake small plastic pieces for fish eggs and feed them to their chicks. There is some debate about the effect the plastic has on the chicks. It is widely thought that the plastics fill up their stomachs and cause the chicks to starve. Fish also are found with plastic filling their stomachs, which can lead to a variety of health issues. 

    Chemicals in the plastic are also proving to be an issue. Plastics absorb chemicals like P.C.B. and D.D.T and concentrate these chemicals. In addition to absorbing some chemicals, plastics also leach out toxins present in the actual plastic such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and organotins. As animals eat these plastics, the chemicals and toxins enter the food web. These chemicals and toxins bioaccumulate or build up in fatty tissues of marine animals, especially those at the top of the food web. As we eat these animals, the chemicals could potentially be building up in humans as well.  

    Larger debris such as fishing nets possess a threat to marine life as well. It is estimated that over 100,000 marine mammals, sea turtles, and other marine animals become entangled in these nets each year and drown in what is known as “ghost fishing”. Even if the animal escapes the netting, they can still be cut or slowed down by nets wrapped around them. About 700,000 tons of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets. 

    One of the best ways to reduce the amount of plastic that is entering our oceans is to reduce the amount used and to participate in clean-up efforts. Simple efforts such as using a reusable grocery bag or water bottle can greatly reduce the amount of plastic used on a daily basis. Avoiding facial washes and other personal care products that use plastic microbeads can also reduce the amount of plastics entering our waterways. Recycling and the proper disposal of waste is necessary to help reduce the amount of plastic trash. 

    International Coast Day Cleanup, organized by the Ocean Conservancy, is an annual clean up event that is working to reduce the amount of debris in the oceans. Last year’s clean-up efforts removed over 16 million pounds of trash from shorelines around the world. Volunteers can participate in this year’s Coast Day Cleanup on Saturday, September 19th starting at 10 a.m. in Ocean City. 

 

Katherine Phillips is the Program Manager for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 


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