No one wants to wake up early to snag an expensive parking spot at the beach, only to be confronted by garbage. People go to the beach seeking fresh, salty air, warm sun, the cold refreshing waves, and perhaps some ice cream. Finding more evidence of man’s encroachment in the form of a beach strewn with litter is enough to ruin anyone’s sunny Saturday. But plastic pollution is more than just ugly. It’s dangerous.
At least 78% of the priority pollutants identified by the EPA are known to be associated with plastic marine debris, as toxic pollutants can stick to the surfaces of plastics. So when sea creatures eat plastic bags or plastic soda rings, not only can it take up room in their stomachs, preventing them from getting the nutrients they need, but it can be full of toxic pollutants it’s picked up in the water! Plastic debris weathers over time, which increases its affinity for chemical sorption. This means the accumulation of chemicals on plastic debris will increase with time in seawater, potentially making them even more hazardous to animals that ingest the debris.
Plastic isn’t a new invention. The first plastic polymer was invented in 1907. However, production has increased exponentially since the 1950s. If fact, in 2014 alone, 311 million metric tons of plastic were produced. And plastic doesn’t decompose like cardboard. So every piece of plastic ever produced is still there, sitting in landfills or floating in the ocean. Of course, recycling is great. However, only an estimated 8.8% of postconsumer plastics were recovered for recycling in the United States in 2012.
Pallets, plastic sheeting, dunnage, and other cargo-associated waste accounts for 88% of waste generated at sea. So even if every shopper carefully rinsed out their yogurt cups and saved their ziplocks there would still be plenty of plastic damaging the ocean’s ecosystems. Plastic trash does break down eventually, but only into smaller pieces of plastic.
Microplastics are a problem we are only now becoming aware of. Physical means such as weathering and chewing by organisms, as well as chemical means like UV radiation and the stomach acids of sea creatures fragment large plastic objects into microplastics. Sometimes they break down enough so that they’re no longer visible to the naked eye. But these microplastics can be confused for plankton by ocean dwellers.
Microplastics also end up in human drinking water. When ingested, these plastics accumulate in the body and the damage they cause long-term is not yet known. Plastic microbeads are used as abrasives in toiletry products. Synthetic clothing releases fibers during washing. Both of these can enter household wastewater and are a big source of microplastics. Microplastics of various forms, including pellets, fragments, and fibers, have been detected in beach and deep-sea sediments around the world.
Plastic pollution is a widespread problem. People have seen pictures of the “Great Pacific garbage patch” larger than the state of Texas floating between California and Asia. But you can’t see the tiny bits of plastic that avoid being filtered out in water treatment plants and make their way into your drinks.
This article was written by Dorothy Cooperson Vieweg, ORI summer intern.