The health of our ocean ecosystems plays a vital role in the overall health of the planet and the human species. Right now, a silent threat is looming off our shores, out of sight and out of mind. Plastic debris is accumulating in our oceans in unprecedented amounts, killing wildlife and setting off a chain of damaging environmental effects—with lasting consequences we are only beginning to understand.
Ocean plastics primarily float just below the surface in the upper 10 feet of the water column, and are concentrated in massive, slow-moving ocean eddies known as gyres. The North Pacific Gyre, an area of ocean stretching 500 to 1,000 miles between the West Coast of the United States and the islands of Hawaii, already contains an estimated 100 million tons of plastic.1 Much of this plastic can last for hundreds of years in the salty marine environment, and the rate we are adding plastics to the ocean is still increasing.2
Plastics cause a number of serious problems for ocean ecosystems. Some animals mistake debris such as plastic bags for jellyfish or other food sources, and ingest enough to kill them. Large plastics can also snare, injure and drown animals. Despite the issues large, visible debris cause, many of the most significant risks are due to a smaller and more numerous threat—microplastics.
Over time, larger debris break down into small particles known as microplastics. It’s been estimated that microplastics are so numerous in some gyres that the weight ratio of zooplankton, the base of many oceanic food chains, to microplastics may be as much as 6:1.3 Animals are consuming large amounts of microplastics, which expose them to dangerous levels of toxins as the plastics break down.4 Plastics can also concentrate and transmit other dangerous chemicals. A growing body of evidence suggests that microplastics in fish pass persistent chemicals such as the pesticide DDT and toxic PPBs through the food chain.5
The damage doesn’t end at the ocean’s edge, however. As the concentration of plastics in the ocean grows, so does the risk to humans who rely on commercial fishing as a part of the food supply. Plastics in the food chain are delivering DDT, PPBs and other harmful substances directly to the seafood on our plates. Worse still, the seafood on our plates may disappear entirely. Plastic pollution is one of a number of factors driving an ongoing catastrophic collapse of ocean species. From 1970 to 2012, total fish populations have dropped an astounding 50 percent, according to the World Wildlife Federation.6 We are watching our oceans die.
Plastics are entering the ocean from a variety of sources. A leading contributor is poor waste disposal practices from coastal areas, especially in Asia, that put plastics directly into the ocean.7 Waste from ships, lost cargo and fishing gear, and coastal disasters such as tsunamis add to the problem.8 The scope of ocean pollution is so vast that it can only realistically be addressed through widespread political and social advocacy coupled with new international agreements to reduce plastic waste disposal and improve the standards for handling these materials.
Because there is no clear legal jurisdiction over the international waters where the highest levels of plastics collect, it is falling to non-profits and NGOs to lead. The first step toward cleaning up our oceans is education. Although this issue has been receiving some attention over the past several years, most in the general public still have little understanding of the reality and scope of the problem. Secondly, we need to invest in research to determine the most effective methods of extracting and recycling ocean plastics. Some non-profit initiatives, like The Ocean Cleanup Project, are already testing the feasibility of ocean-cleaning technologies, but much more needs to be done. Even if a workable, cost-effective solution can be developed, we still face the daunting problem of stopping or slowing the plastic pollution of our oceans through legislation.
It’s a massive challenge, but here are some practical ways you can do your part to help us solve it together.
Right now GeoEngineers is looking for the most effective ways to get involved and contribute our expertise to help remove and recycle ocean plastics. Join me in facing the problem head-on. Let’s solve it together.