Ocean Pollution: Plastic, Plastic Everywhere

Stemming the tide of plastic pollution is a lot more difficult than researchers anticipated.

April 30, 2012

This isn't the kind of souvenir you want to bring home from the beach.

Vast quantities of our plastic garbage end up far from the recycling facilities and landfills they were destined for. If you need any evidence of that, just search the Web for the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," an area of the Pacific Ocean that's filled with plastic garbage, estimated to be the size of Texas.


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First discovered in 1997, the Pacific Garbage Patch isn't so much a tangible mass of floating plastic debris as it is a plastic soup, with things like umbrella handles, toothbrushes, and other tiny partially degraded plastic listing along the waves for thousands of miles. And it's not the only one in the world's oceans. Scientists have identified five other masses of floating plastic in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans.

Those masses of debris are much larger than anyone anticipated, according to a new study. After one scientist noticed that the plastic seemed to appear and disappear with high winds or heavy waves, a team of researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Delaware, Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, visited a few of these areas to test water samples. They collected samples of ocean water in the Pacific and North Atlantic, at depths as low as 100 feet, and found plastic debris in every sample. Waves and wind, they found, can push plastic deeper in the water, making it invisible to people sailing on the surface.

"These results suggest that total oceanic plastics concentrations are significantly underestimated by traditional surface measurements," they wrote in their paper, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

All that hidden plastic has a serious impact on the ocean and our food supply. As plastic sinks deeper in the ocean, coral reefs, barnacles, and crabs start latching onto it, forming large masses that block out the sunlight that feeds phytoplankton, the small organic matter that forms the basis of nearly all sea life. Furthermore, small fish eat the plastic, and larger fish consume those fish. As the plastic works its way up the food chain, any contaminants (such as PCBs or BPA) become more concentrated in the fish that ultimately wind up on your plate.

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Do your part to cut down on plastic pollution in the oceans—it's really not that hard!

• Buy in bulk. Use cloth or other reusable bags to buy grains, nuts, seeds, and flour in bulk so you can eliminate extra packaging.

• Buy reusable produce bags—or make your own!—to eliminate the flimsy plastic versions that are difficult to reuse or recycle.

• Take the 21-Day Reusable Challenge! Olympic snowboarder (and our sexiest environmentalist) Gretchen Bleiler is working with the nonprofit Protect Our Winters to encourage everyone to give up disposables for 21 days. Learn more about it in her 9 Best Ways to Live Green.

• Ditch disposables. Even if you don't take the 21-day Challenge, find reusable alternatives for all your disposable goods: coffee cups, straws, flatware, shopping bags, and anything else you find yourself throwing away frequently.



Plastic pollution in ocean likely underestimated, researchers say, California Watch

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