Plastics were invented in the 1800’s but its mass production began in the 1950’s and has since taken off around the globe. While it is possible to recycle most types of plastic, it is estimated that only about 25% of plastics are recycled worldwide. A great deal of the plastic ends up in our oceans, seas, and waterways. Research has shown severe impacts on our environment and our economy from this type of pollution. Marine life such as sea turtles, whales, seabirds and other marine life are eating the plastic and dying. Scientists are looking at long term impacts of pollutants consumed by fish and their potential effects on human health. It has become such an environmental concern that a little over a decade ago a science of marine debris began the study of garbage in our waters. A recent study showed the global magnitude of this problem.
The Malaspina expedition of 2010 was a nine month research project to study the effects of global warming on the oceans and the biodiversity of the deep ocean ecosystem. Andres Cozar and his team were to study the small fauna living on the ocean surface. He was reassigned when plastic fragments kept turning up in water samples to assess the level of plastic pollution. Using that data and the data gathered by four other ships he and his team of researchers completed the first ever global map of ocean trash.
Recently, Cozar’s work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research team found a worldwide distribution of plastic on the surface of the ocean mostly accumulating in the convergence zones of the five subtropical gyres (an area of anticyclonic ocean circulation that sits beneath a region of subtropical high pressure). Researchers estimated the total amount of floating plastic used in the manufacture of products like bags, food and beverage containers, kitchen utensils and toys, in open ocean between 7,000 and 35,000 tons, a lot less than the 1 million ton figure they had expected. This included only floating debris and not plastic that may reside beneath the surface or on the ocean floor. Cozar said,” the plastic is somewhere in the ocean life, in the depths, or broken down into fine particles undetectable by nets.”
There are some ways that individuals can make sure that plastics never reach our oceans. Among them are recycling and picking up plastic litter, asking for a reusable water bottle, bringing your own reusable bags to the store and pressuring plastic producers to design packaging so that it is fully recyclable.