By Taffy Lee Williams, NY4Whales.org
In an area halfway between California and Hawaii, ocean currents and winds drive marine debris into a swirling dynamic area that has become known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). It is the largest of five oceanic garbage patches, or gyres, weighing in at 80,000 metric tons with some 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, everything from derelict fishing gear to plastic bottles, straws, construction debris, toys and more. The Ocean Cleanup Foundation is reporting that the GPGP is now a shocking 600,000 square miles in size. A 2015 study found 16 times more plastics and debris than earlier estimates, while scientists believe an “exponential growth” is occurring as debris from Asian nations as well as North and South America continues to accumulate.
Where does all this trash come from? Shipping and cargo vessels contribute by dumping cargo (either deliberately or by accident), cruise and recreational ships directly offload waste while fishing vessels drop unwanted, non-functioning items overboard, including fishing gear, traps and ropes. Meanwhile, careless beachgoers leave litter and food packaging on the sandy shores, while the outflow of rivers carries the throw-away refuse of human society into the oceans. In one of the most mindless littering activities, millions of balloons are released in any number of sporting, memorial, entertainment or celebratory events, often traveling hundreds, if not thousands of miles until they fall, 72% of the time, into a body of water. Plastics and other synthetic materials have become ubiquitous, and their effects on the environment and wildlife have become catastrophic.
Synthetic materials, aka “plastics” began their conquest of the human experience in the early 20th century. Products made of nylon, styrene and more were viewed as the height of progress and luxury. They provided convenient wraps for food and other products, and were easily molded into containers, eating utensils, automobile parts, even medical devices. Now ubiquitous, we can’t shed our dependence or find solutions for the massive amount of waste that these eventually broken and unusable products generate. We are used to our “throw away” products, our pens, cigarette butts, plastic shopping bags, and the easily forgotten litter they generate.
MARINE ANIMALS SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES
What does all this mess mean to marine life? While fish populations have been crashing around the world with amounts of biomass in decline, the infusion of plastic and debris has been growing non-stop. Meanwhile, in a never-ending search for food, hungry marine animals, everything from whales to snails and all those in between, are consuming the trash.
Just consider latex balloons, which may take 6 months to several years to decompose, plenty of time to kill marine organisms. Partygoers witness the 20 second “thrill” of seeing them rise and disappear; then balloons will burst and fall, usually with ribbons and strings attached. To a sea turtle, the flexible floating balloon pieces and trailing threads resemble plankton, a preferred food. How many floating deflated balloons or plastic bags have killed sea turtles, all species of which are endangered, we will never know.
Just last week we learned of the sperm whale that washed up on an Indonesian beach. A necropsy showed the whale had died with over 13 pounds of non-food items, aka, trash, in its gut:
A dead sperm whale [was] aground on a shore in central Indonesia had digested over 1,000 pieces of plastics or nearly six kg, Wakatobi district national park chief Heri Santoso said on Wednesday.
The park chief said that the items found in the stomach of the 9.5-meter long mammal included 115 drinking cups, 4 plastic bottles, 2 flip-flops, 25 plastic bags and over 1,000 assorted pieces of plastic, reports Efe news.
In another shocking “killer-trash” report, a pilot whale died in Thailand waters after consuming 17 pounds of plastic bags (80 bags in all).
Like turtles who consume synthetic materials, whales and dolphins will fill their stomachs with trash while looking for food. If the particles don’t become lodged in internal organs, which can cause blockages and death, the animals may actually starve to death with a stomach full of indigestible debris.
A seal is trapped in a deadly tangled nest of discarded fishing gear and nets.
Shock, combined with a little wonder at the unnatural. That’s how I feel as I watch the knife slice through the sternum of a dead Laysan albatross. Inside its ribcage: a sickening array of plastic. A red bottle top from a well-known soft drink brand. A cigarette lighter. Or two. Long thin items I couldn’t begin to identify. It looked like the bird had swallowed the contents of an entire trash can whole.
Yet this wasn’t because it dined on a refuse site. I was on Midway Island, in the remote Pacific Ocean, at least 1,500 miles from the nearest one of those. This disgusting and otherworldly sight exists because we’re throwing the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic into the oceans every minute. By 2050, a number of researchers expect the world’s oceans to contain more plastic than fish, by weight.
Research at the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics in Switzerland found microplastic ingestion even by base of the food chain plankton:
Each year, millions of metric tons of the plastic produced for food packaging, personal care products, fishing gear, and other human activities end up in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. The breakdown of these primary plastics in the environment results in microplastics, small fragments of plastic typically less than 1-5 mm in size. These synthetic particles have been detected in all of the world’s oceans and also in many freshwater systems, accumulating in sediment, on shorelines, suspended in surface waters, and being ingested by plankton, fish, birds, and marine mammals.
(Research Highlights: Impacts of microplastics on plankton. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26829584)
Scientists are confirming that now microplastics are being unavoidably swallowed by tomorrow’s “seafood”. That means if you consume fish, your body is most likely harboring microplastics, too. Microplastics can be as small as any length of thread, an ant, a sesame or poppy seed and are often too small to see with the naked eye. At this size they may easily lodge undetected in the tissue of seafood products like lobster and salmon headed for market.
The amount of trash being dumped into our oceans is staggering, and the problem continues to get worse.
In a more direct route, boaters may dump their trash right into the sea. In the past, this has been the main cause of plastics in the ocean. In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage was being dumped into the ocean every year. That’s more than 1.5 million pounds per hour. More than 85% of this trash was estimated to come from the world’s merchant shipping fleet in the form of cargo-associated wastes. According to the Academy, the United States could be the source of approximately one third of this ocean pollution.
By 2016, the World Economic Forum found the tonnage of marine debris had increased to ~25 million tons per year, a number still expected to rise:
A full 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into our oceans; the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
If we carry on as usual, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. By 2050, this could mean there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.
ADDRESSING THE SCOURGE
As part of an international treaty, in 1988 the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL) was established, making it illegal to dump plastics into the oceans. But the law is almost impossible to enforce and doesn’t address the thousands of miles of driftnets, ropes and fishing gear “which can ensnare and kill birds diving for the fish below, or come loose, only to be discovered later by an unfortunate humpback whale.” (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
Today, researchers estimate up to 480,000 particles of microplastics in one square kilometer of ocean water.
This green sea turtle was weighed down by a masssive fishing net.
How is anything supposed to avoid ingestion?
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Although the slogan may seem cliché, “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle” is good advice. Simply using and buying less, fixing, repurposing and reusing what is already in hand, and recycling what is allowed can do a lot to address the problem. Avoid those single-use products like straws, plastic bags and utensils. Encourage officials to invest in enforcing those neglected anti-ocean dumping laws. If we all did our part, we would have less of a “plastic ocean catastrophe” on our hands.
Plastics? Throw away trash? “We need it,” the makers of plastics say. “We can’t live without it!” Well, if I were a fish, I would beg to differ.
To learn about NY4Whales’ efforts to stop mass balloon releases visit https://ny4whales.org/no-balloons-campaign.