Plastic oceans

The oceans are full of different ecosystems which provide the human race with vast amounts of goods and services. Our dependency on the natural resources coming from oceans is unquestionable. Since the commercialization of plastic products in the 20th century there has been a huge transformation in the composition of these valuable waters, affecting its wildlife and therefore us, major consumers of fish and other biotic factors. From the approximately 100 million tons of plastic produced each year, 10% ends in the sea. Most of this trash is thrown from land, while only 20% comes from ships (Greenpeace.org). Once in the ocean, plastic travels around the world due to the currents, so a plastic bottle thrown in the coast of Japan might end somewhere in the west coast of Mexico.

(“Plastic Vortex” in the Pacific Ocean, where plastic concentrates due to currents, occupying an estimated area as the size of Texas)

The environmental implications this waste has on the quality of water and sea life is only starting to be acknowledged. The main problem with plastic waste is that it is not biodegradable, thus generating different kinds of problems:

Firstly and probably the most problematic of all is that animals tend to eat plastic waste as they get confused with other sources of food. It is estimated that over a million sea-birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and sea turtles are killed by plastic injection or entanglement. Further to this, plastics act as “chemical sponges”, concentrating damaging pollutants like POP’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants) (Greenpeace.org). The effects of this are unpredictable, and considering the current levels of overfishing it is possible that fish with plastic or chemical pollutants might end in our dinner if certification schemes are not more severe with quality.


The second problem is that plastic is slowly broken down into smaller particles due to sunlight and wave action. Around 70% of discarded plastic sinks to the bottom. Dutch scientists have counted a total of 110 pieces of litter for every square kilometer of seabed. Microscopic particles of plastic are ingested by tiny animals, killing the sea life and contaminating the vulnerable ecosystems and the food chain (Gannon, 2012).

 


Despite the pessimistic news from the scientific community there are still possible solutions to the problem:

1) Plastic-Eating bacteria: Scientists have found bateria-like cells in the ocean that seem to digest plastic. It is still unknown if the digestion produces harmless by-products or if it introduces toxins into the food chain (Zaikab, 2011). Either way, it is a potential area for investigation in order to achieve a way to get rid of waste.

2) Waste prevention. The most usefull to way reduce risks associated with water contamination is to reduce the amount of waste thrown at it. Raising awareness of the issue is a must in order for countries, particularly developing ones (which do not have such an environmental consciousness as developed ones) to reduce waste. At present time there are several campaigns doing this and volunteers that are collecting trash from the ocean.

 

 

 

References

Greenpeace website,

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/pollution/trash-vortex/

UNEP Regional Seas Report and Studies No. 178, http://www.unep.org/pdf/EcosystemBiodiversity_DeepWaters_20060616.pdf

Johnson, C. (2011), CNN, “Plastic-eating bacteria found in ‘ocean desert,’ scientist says” , http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/30/plastic-eating-bacteria-found-in-ocean-desert-scientist-says/

Gannon, M. (2012) Live Science, “Plastic trash invades the artic seafloor”, http://www.livescience.com/24247-plastic-trash-arctic-seafloor.html

Zaikab, G. D., (2011) Nature, “Marine microbes digest plastic”,

http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110328/full/news.2011.191.html



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