Editorials

Life-threatening oceanic plastic

A newly released study by scientific researchers finds that the problem of plastic in the ocean is worse than previously believed. The new highly extensive study published last month found that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing some 269,000 tons have now inundated the oceans, reaching into even the remotest areas.

The ships doing the research traveled far more widely than in past studies, collected more samples and used more advanced computer models to analyze the data. The conclusion confirms what has already been known: that the world’s oceans are full of plastic but that the new research indicates that the plastic has expanded and dispersed to a much greater degree than previously believed.

The study also examined how the plastic bottles, bags, toys and vast amount of other floating plastic gathers at “gyres,” where ocean currents come together into a massive circular eddy that traps the plastic. At those ocean gyres, the garbage is smashed together by wave action after becoming brittle in the sun. Once the plastic is shredded into pieces as small as grains of sand, it can spread widely.

As a result, researchers cannot easily determine where the smallest pieces have gone. One related study found 35,000 tons of plastic in the ocean, but they were expecting to find millions. The plastic didn’t disappear; it just became harder to find as it became more deeply enmeshed in the biosphere. Even more disturbing is the finding that plastic pieces easily become coated with other toxic substances such as PCBs, thereby helping to retain and spread the most poisonous substances. The toxic-coated, poisonous plastic is swept into the ocean’s deepest reaches to be ingested by marine organisms. After ingesting the pollutants and absorbing the toxic substances, the organisms pass them to predators higher in the food chain, where they become increasingly concentrated. Eventually, of course, that plastic reaches humans. Once the plastic enters the food chain, it doesn’t disappear. It works its way up.

The current use of plastic materials is ecologically unsustainable. Most estimates show that the vast majority of plastics used by consumers are not recovered or recycled. Plastic that makes its way into the ocean has little chance of ever being recycled. The increasing invasion of plastic into the food chain is not just a matter of sustainability; it is a matter of poisoning the source of all earthly life.

Solutions are difficult to come by. One suggestion is that fishing vessels reclaim nets and other plastic fishing equipment, since a great deal of the plastic comes from discarded fishing nets and buoys. It is not just the fishing industry that needs to institute better practices; the entire system of production and consumption of plastic in the world needs to be radically reformed. Controlling the level of plastic in the ocean is an urgent issue that must be addressed before humans start questioning each bite of fish they eat.

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