Oceans: The World's Dump Site

Monday, February 11, 2013

by Ricky Wood


An accidentally discarded plastic water bottle or shopping bag may seem like the type of litter typically found along an urban roadside but when these items are found adrift, off the coast of Antarctica, it seems startlingly out-of-place to most people. Since the majority of our planet is covered by oceans, they seem vast, pure and limitless. However, scientists and seafarers are now seeing large “patches” of manmade debris—primarily plastic—out in the open ocean, including in the once pristine waters of the Polar Regions. The cumulative effect of plastic debris on the health of the oceans ecosystems and its relative effect on human populations who depend on marine animals for food have not been conclusively determined and the problem continues to grow.

Science writer Richard Grant researched the effects of ocean plastic on the health of certain animals. "Every single molecule of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still somewhere in the environment, and some 100 million tons of it are floating in the oceans." (Grant)

The health issues created by plastic are just now becoming noticeable in several animals who call the oceans their homes, he said. Grant goes on to outline the known extent of damage to the health of certain species of marine animals:

Worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic is killing a million seabirds a year, and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles. It kills by entanglement, most commonly in discarded synthetic fishing lines and nets. It kills by choking throats and gullets and clogging up digestive tracts, leading to fatal constipation. Bottle caps, pocket combs, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, cotton bud shafts, toothbrushes, toys, syringes and plastic shopping bags are routinely found in the stomachs of dead seabirds and turtles.

It’s not just the “big” pieces of plastic garbage that are a concern. Studies cited by Grant found that the chemical components of plastic particles breakdown into tiny, toxic elements as they degrade. These toxins bio accumulate—or buildup in the organs—of animals exposed to them.

Still, a major problem lies in the fact that even those who are actively researching the issue cannot agree on how widespread the problem is. Wall Street Journal writer Carl Bialik found much disagreement over the extant of the pelagic plastic pollution. Bialik says the lack of common ground may hamper scientists’ abilities to agree on a course of action:

Some misinformation comes from other environmental groups exaggerating the alarming research. Environmental advocate David Suzuki has written of a "massive, expanding island of plastic debris 30 meters [98 feet] deep and bigger than the province of Quebec." Asked whether the high-plastic region could really be called an island, Bill Wareham, senior marine conservation specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation, says, "It's not going to look like [an] island in the context of, 'Gee, I can walk across that.' But it is a very high density of plastic." He adds, "David speaks in a way where he's framing the issue in a way people can understand it."

Knowing the scope of the issue will likely bring up more questions than answers. “Even if scientists and advocates could agree on numbers for the size and plastic concentration of the gyre, it is unclear what they would do with the information.” (Bialik)

What is increasingly clear is that the problem will continue to grow if left unabated.

“Plastic bags, balloons, glass bottles, shoes, packaging material—if not disposed of correctly, almost everything we throw away can reach the sea.” (World Wildlife Fund)

Plastic debris and garbage eventually becomes flotsam and will pollute beaches and other coastal habitats. The ultimate issue at stake is where we put our plastic garbage, if there is no “away” to put it.

One possible step to take is to reduce the amount of plastic materials created and utilized by manufactures and consumers. Another big step is an increase in recycling plastic materials.

Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Allen Hershkowitz, a leading expert on recycling, and advocates greater usage of recycling technology for plastics.

“It is virtually beyond dispute that manufacturing products from recyclables instead of from virgin raw materials—making, for instance, paper out of old newspapers instead of virgin timber—causes less pollution and imposes fewer burdens on the earth's natural habitat and biodiversity.” (Hershkowitz)

Because plastics are inherently robust, removing them from the environment is only feasible through reuse of their component materials, he said.

“In virtually all cases, recycling helps reduce or eliminate the pollution typically associated with the production and disposal of consumer products.” (Hershkowitz)

As scientists continue to study the problem, the Earth’s oceans will continue to accumulate plastic. The overall health of an increasing number of species is imperiled by the collective pollution and, if no further action is taken to remove the toxic debris, inevitably human health is threatened as well. The long-term solution will likely come in embracing multiple ideas and developing technologies to increase the volume of plastics that are reduced, reused and recycled.

Works Cited

Bialik, Carl. "The Quantity and Impact of Plastic Debris in the World's Oceans Is Unknown." Pollution. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2011. Opposing Viewpoints. Rpt. from "How Big Is That Widening Gyre of Floating Plastic?" Wall Street Journal 25 Mar. 2009. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.

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Grant, Richard. "Plastic Debris Is Polluting the World's Oceans." Pollution. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2011. Opposing Viewpoints. Rpt. from "Drowning in Plastic." Telegraph 24 Apr. 2009. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.

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Hershkowitz, Allen. "Recycled Materials Produce Less Pollution." Pollution. Ed. James Haley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Current Controversies. Rpt. from "In Defense of Recycling." Social Research (Spring 1998). Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.

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Word Wildlife Fund (WWF). "Ocean Pollution Is a Global Threat." Pollution. Ed. Debra A. Miller. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012. Current Controversies. Rpt. from "Marine Problems: Pollution." Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.

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