Swimming in Plastic?

The worlds population has been growing at an exponential rate. This rapid growth is not only affecting life here on land, it affects our oceans which in turn circle back to affect our lives. In general our environment is suffering from the population growth with the issue of supply and demand for natural resources, but another pressing matter is: what do we do with all our trash? The ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface and it is, unfortunately, filled with trash.

Trash Generated vs. Trash Recycled

Trash Generated vs. Trash Recycled

This issue has mainly arisen to the public eye because of the Malaysian plane crashes. While we were searching for debris from the plane, satellites saw images that they thought were pieces of floating debris, but instead were trash islands, or refrigerators. Scientists found that around 2,309 pieces of litter are found in every kilometer of coastline, so why can’t we see it? I went to a presentation by a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute representative who spoke about plastics in our ocean. Plastic is a very durable substance, which is great for our everyday purposes, but not so great when it lands in our oceans and doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it becomes tiny pieces of plastic commonly referred to as “micro plastics”

It may seem crazy that tiny beads of plastic called micro plastics end up in our ocean, but if you look at your daily body wash that may contain exfoliating beads; some of them are polyethylene plastics. Polyethylene is also the plastic commonly used for plastic bags and bottles. Even our fleece jackets emit plastic particles into the ocean when we wash them in our washers because, yes, they are made with plastic threads. These plastics, when in the Open Ocean, are exposed to the sun and crashing waves. This breaks them down into micro plastics that prove very difficult to clean up. With the rise in supply and demand, due to the rise in the population, of these common, sometimes every day, products, the amount of plastic in the ocean also increases.

How small are micro plastics? Small.

How small are micro plastics? Small.

Why are micro plastics an issue? Micro plastics are quite possibly and most realistically the most abundant items of plastic debris in our ocean. They are quite easily ingested by fish and other marine life, and is threatening starvation to many marine birds, mammals, and animals that depend upon the organism plankton, which is small like the micro plastics, for food. Some recent research has produced data that shows the ratio of plastic to plankton in the ocean is as great as 46:1. With this devastating fact we must also look at the facts that demand for fish has been predicted to rise dramatically over the next 100 years. How will we be able to meet that demand if there aren’t any fish to catch and fisheries are closing left and right?

I am a firm believer that by recycling and paying attention to the products we use, every individual can make an impact upon the issue of micro plastics in the ocean. There is not much we can do about the rising population affecting the rising supply and demand of plastic products, but we can promote the usage of recycled material. We can however, turn the rising population into a population that recycles and reduces the usage of plastic wasteful material! In terms of cleaning up the mess that is already there, scientists are trying to figure a way to collect the micro plastics without impeding the life of marine animals. It’s not as easy as just dragging a really fine net through the ocean because that would also remove some microorganisms that are key factors in the marine food chain. Another issue that has arisen with the removal of micro plastics is that since they have been there for so long without us noticing them, microbes have been found living in colonies of chunks of the floating beads. The micro plastics are acting as faux reefs for these microscopic organisms. It brings into question what their impact will be upon the other inhabitants of the oceans? So what do we do? My opinion is that we minimize the amount of plastic that has the potential to me emitted into the ocean, and remove the micro plastics currently floating around slowly so that the ecosystems may return to how they functioned before we polluted them.

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One thought on “Swimming in Plastic?

  1. You’ve made it extremely clear that this is a very complicated problem. It reminds me of those rivers of trash that I’ve seen on the news several times before, but finding a solution to this problem will be much harder since all the solutions I’ve seen for trash rivers is cleaning them up by hand which simple volunteers can’t do in this situation. Although I agree that recycling more will alleviate this issue a bit, I think that we need to be more proactive than that. I would like to think beach cleaning can do a lot, but with tiny beads that would be disruptive to the ecosystem that adapted around it, it’s definitely a different level of cleaning. It would require some technology that isn’t currently available to us. I’ve looked at the articles you’ve cited and there doesn’t seem to be some sort of elixir that’s going to solve this through simple means. However, it does mention that volunteers can clean up bigger pieces of liter so that they don’t become micro beads. I think it would be better to have a large-scale clean up to buy time to find a better way to get rid of those beads and leave alone the microorganisms.


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