Sustainability Report: Plastic Consequences

The stuff breaks into pieces, so plastic litters the world’s oceans

Science Features environment
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Sustainability Report: Plastic Consequences

Taking a bottle of water to the beach to stay hydrated is a good health practice. Recycling those plastic bottles is possible, but no more than 10 percent of the approximately 300 million tons of annual plastic produced globally ever makes it to a recycling plant. So if that empty water bottle falls out of a beach bag, blows down to the sand on a breeze or is simply left behind, it will likely become part of the estimated 5-13 million tons of plastics that end up in the world’s oceans every single year.

Last week’s 2017 United Nations Ocean conference spotlighted negative human impact on the water that covers 71 percent of the planet. Considering that our oceans also contain about 97 percent of the earth’s water, the level of pollution matters to all forms of life.

garbagebeach.png Photo courtesy of H. Hach

“The health of our oceans and seas requires us to put aside short-term national gain, to avoid long-term global catastrophe,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during opening remarks. “Conserving our oceans and using them sustainably is preserving life itself.”

During the UN Conference, delegates from China, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines made a statement committing to improve efforts to halt the flow of plastic waste into the oceans. The realization of such a commitment would help because approximately 60 percent of this annual tonnage comes from just five nations: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, according to a 2015 study published by Science magazine. The U.S. ranks 20th globally, owing to a well-developed garbage collection system. But the high level of consumption as a wealthy nation means our recycling efforts should be much better.

Scientists have been studying marine garbage in general and plastic in particular for a long time, and the findings are disturbing. Another 2015 study estimated that more than five trillion plastic particles of plastic are in the world’s oceans, so that number has only increased as the dumping continues. In the meantime, marine plants and animals are dying because of plastic.

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Plastic as Food

Any animal that lives in or near an ocean likely has plastic in or on its body. For some of the littlest, this can mean a painful death. “Plastic can be ingested by most marine species, whether marine mammals, sea turtles, fish or invertebrates,” says Charles Manire, director of research and rehabilitation at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC). “It is likely that they ingest it either mistaking it for food items or ingesting it with other food items.”

Plastic doesn’t degrade, it just breaks up into smaller pieces. Some of those very tiny pieces, called microplastics, are less than five millimeters in size and can be impossible for humans to differentiate from sand or shells. So it’s no wonder animals can also mistake those tiny bits for a bug or algae.

microplastics.png Microplastics up close. Photo courtesy of Loggerhead Marinelife Center Sea Turtle Hospital, Juno Beach, FL

“With sea turtles, our biggest concern is with the smallest stages, post-hatchlings, usually less than one year old, continued Manire. “These turtles live in convergence zones in the ocean where sargassum provides both food and shelter—protection from predators. Unfortunately trash, including plastics, also collect in these convergence zones mixed into the sargassum. The tiny turtles ingest the small plastic pieces which have the potential of completely blocking their intestinal tract, causing death.”

posthatchling.png Microplastics removed from post-hatchling turtles. Photo courtesy of Loggerhead Marinelife Center Sea Turtle Hospital, Juno Beach, FL

That plastic can also cut through the digestive tract and lacerate internal organs, causing infection and death. In the past two years, LMC examined over 50 post-hatchlings and: “All but one had plastic in their intestinal tract, many of them dying from its presence blocking the intestine,” according to Manire. With nearly all turtle species affected by plastic waste—through ingestion or damage to their bodies, the size of future generations are at risk. All sea turtles are on the threatened or endangered species list so rebuilding their population is critical for long-term survival.

Underwater plants and coral reefs can also be damaged by plastic garbage. Larger pieces can break stalks of coral or plants, and be smothered by grocery bags and sheets of free-floating plastic. Fishing line and other debris gets caught up on seaweed, and millions of products that could be recycled end up on beaches. Soda and water bottles, tooth brushes, flip-flops, balloons, single-serving condiment packages, “disposable” drinking straws, toys and more are just a few of the plastic items picked up during beach cleanup events. This year already, over 66 percent of total debris collected by LMC beach cleanups is plastics.

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Transforming Trash

Awareness about this issue seems to be gaining some momentum as reports about once pristine beaches strewn with trash are making it impossible to ignore that humans are causing all this damage. Some of the ways activists and organizations are building that attention is as creative as the solutions need to be. Given that most of the plastic is now on the ocean floor, which has an average depth of 12,000 feet (1.7 miles), it’s not going to be possible (a.k.a. cost-effective) to remove a lot of what’s already down there.

Some artists are using their creative talents to build sculptures out of plastic debris. The U.N. conference featured several sculptures of sea creatures—fish, sea horse, a whale’s tail—that were as educational as they were colorful. This year singer Jack Johnson, who is also an avid surfer, is launching a Smog of the Sea music tour, and the promotional image shows how plastic is marine smog.

Johnson also joined a week-long boat trip through the Sargasso Sea with marine scientist Marcus Erikse. The other members of the crew included surfers Keith and Dan Malloy, spear fisher Kimi Werner and bodysurfer Mark Cunningham. The documentary film of the trip, Smog of the Sea will join Plastic Ocean and Miday in the growing library of movies that take most people where they will never go to see the harm done by plastic.

Bust just as this monumental problem has developed over time as the cumulative effect of careless actions, it can be remediated with thoughtful individual actions, according to LMC.

“If people using the ocean would pick up one piece of plastic and dispose of it properly each time they are on the water, that would lead things in a better direction,” says Manire.

plasticbottle.png Photo courtesy of tanja österreich

With a mission to “promote conservation of ocean ecosystems with a special focus on threatened and endangered sea turtles,” LMC is doing its part to remove plastic from the ocean. In 2016 alone, the group collected removed 12,983 pieces of plastic less than 2.5 centimeters. An additional 633 other kinds of plastic trash (take out containers, bottle caps, beverage bottles, lids and bags), means plastic debris accounted for 76 percent of all trash collected. All of this was collected from beneath just one fishing pier, the Juno Brach Pier, and a 9.5-mile stretch of beach the LMC maintains in south Florida.

Top photo by jackjohnsonmusic.com


Margo is a science writer poking her nose into everything that piques her curiosity, from NASA and sea turtles to climate change and green tech.

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