What Is The Problem
Plastics: made to last forever, designed to throw away
We live in a throwaway culture
Nearly every food product we buy…
Take a look around you- most of what we eat, drink, or use in any way comes packaged in petroleum plastic- a material designed to last forever, yet used for products that we then throw away. This throwaway mentality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just a generation ago, we packaged our products in reusable or recyclable materials – glass, metals, and paper, and designed products that would last. Today, our landfills and beaches are awash in plastic packaging, and expendable products that have no value at the end of their short lifecycle.
The short-term convenience of using and throwing away plastic products carries a very inconvenient long-term truth. These plastic water bottles, cups, utensils, electronics, toys, and gadgets we dispose of daily are rarely recycled in a closed loop. We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it? Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains “unaccounted for”, lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea.
Around the world, plastic pollution…
Around the world, plastic pollution has become a growing plague, clogging our waterways, damaging marine ecosystems, and entering the marine food web. Much of the plastic trash we generate on land flows into our oceans through storm drains and watersheds. It falls from garbage and container trucks, spills out of trashcans, or is tossed carelessly.
In the ocean, some of these plastics- Polycarbonate, Polystrene, and PETE- sink, while LDPE, HDPE, Polypropylene, and foamed plastics float on the oceans surface. Sunlight and wave action cause these floating plastics to fragment, breaking into increasingly smaller particles, but never completely disappearing- at least on any documented time scale. This plastic pollution is becoming a hazard for marine wildlife, and ultimately for us.
These currents are called “gyres”
Our oceans are dynamic systems, made up of complex networks of currents that circulate water 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.
The North Pacific Gyre, the most heavily researched for plastic pollution, spans an area roughly twice the size of the United States – though it is a fluid system, shifting seasonally in size and shape. Designed to last, plastic trash in the gyre will remain for decades or longer, being pushed gently in a slow, clockwise spiral towards the center. Most of the research on plastic trash circulating in oceanic gyres has focused on the North Pacific, but there are 5 major oceanic gyres worldwide, with several smaller gyres in Alaska and Antarctica. Marine researchers don’t yet know the extent to which plastic pollution exists in the world’s oceans.
Because petroleum plastics are…
Designed to last, plastic trash in the gyre will remain for decades or longer, being pushed gently in a slow, clockwise spiral towards the center. Most of the research on plastic trash circulating in oceanic gyres has focused on the North Pacific, but there are 5 major oceanic gyres worldwide, with several smaller gyres in Alaska and Antarctica.
As more plastic trash flows from…
…our watersheds to the sea, scientists are finding that plastic debris is accumulating in the each of the 5 oceanic gyres. Research conducted by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation highlighted the “Pacific Garbage Patch”, – an area of plastic accumulation in the North Pacific between California and Hawaii. Studies by the Sea Education Association, (SEA), in the Atlantic have documented plastic pollution in the North Atlantic Gyre.
As plastic particles circulate through oceans, they act as sponges for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, DDT and other pesticides, PAHs and many hydrocarbons washed through our watersheds. These persistent organic pollutants, called “POPs”, absorb and adsorb onto plastic pollution in high concentrations. Plastic pollution is not a benign material in the ocean. Scientists are studying whether these POPs transfer to the marine organisms that mistakingly consume them.
Wait, fish aren’t supposed to eat plastic?
44% of all seabird species, 22% of…
Cetaceans, all sea turtle species, and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies. When marine animals consume plastic trash, presumably mistaking it for food, this can lead to internal blockages, dehydration, starvation, and potentially death.
Also of deep concern for societies are the potential human health impacts of toxic chemicals entering the marine food chain through plastics. Science is beginning to ask the question: do chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs that sorb onto plastic pellets get into the tissues and blood of the animals that eat plastic? Do these chemicals work their way up the food chain, becoming increasingly concentrated and potentially entering our bodies when we eat seafood?