What Has Happened to the Ocean’s Plastic Trash?

Many of us have seen the photos of plastic refuse in the ocean, the large islands of bags and waste that collect at tidal crossroads. Yet when scientists took a survey of the ocean earlier this year, they found a suspicious amount had disappeared. Was it just our good luck that pollution was decreasing? Hardly. It had simply been sinking, breaking apart and embedding itself in the sediment.

Fibers of microplastic, which are similar in diameter to a human hair, have sunk into deep water reserves across the world. For every bag floating across the ocean’s surface, there’s much more of the stuff laying in the ocean floor underneath. How much plastic is there? Well, according to the research, it’s so widespread that they’ve estimated microplastic is on every kilometer of the sea floor across the globe.

The study doesn’t mince words on what the problem is: 

Plastics are extremely durable synthetic polymers, yet more than 30% are made into disposable items such as packaging, which are typically discarded within a year of manufacture. The associated throw-away culture has led to an escalating plastic waste management problem, and widespread accumulation of plastic debris in the natural environment. Debris is now present on shorelines and at the sea surface from pole to pole.”

Plastic, which we most commonly see on the surface of coastal waters and beaches, can hurt marine life. Seabirds, sea turtles, seals and fish all die from plastic ingestion as well as getting tangled in debris. However, what effect could these plastic strands have on deep sea ocean life? Well, as you can imagine, it is not good.

Although deep sea entanglement isn’t much of an issue due to the small size of the microplastics, ingestion poses a huge problem for marine animals. Because plastics can ‘get stuck’ in the stomachs of some marine creatures, the more plastic that is ingested, the more the stomach ‘shrinks.’ This means that animals can actually starve to death because their stomachs can no longer hold the amount of food necessary to sustain life. Even worse, bags can become a magnet for toxins and cancer-causing chemicals, meaning that if a fish ingests the plastic, and we ingest the fish, we also ingest the harmful substances.

The report notes that because of the harm this microplastic poses, it ought to be a “worldwide concern.”

Although many cities in the United States have created ordinances to cut down on plastic bags, the issue revolves around the difficulty petroleum-based plastics have in disintegrating. Creating and using biodegradable and compostable plastics obviously needs to become more widespread. The most popular resin for the bio-plastic base is corn starch. Yet none of this is actually news as bioplastics have been around for generations and we’ve just failed to integrate them into our lives.

Part of the reason is the complicated language surrounding biodegradable and compostable plastics (which by the way, are not the same thing and should not be confused). They also don’t come without environmental implications, dangerous chemicals and, oh here’s the big one, they cost more.

So instead, we’ve littered the floors of the oceans with long strings of plastics that will never disintegrate. It’s an unfortunate reality that oceanographer Kara Lavender Law put succinctly“The more we look, the more we find.” This sad reality might become part of the new normal for oceans the world over.

148 comments

Elizabeth Z.
Elizabeth Z.1 years ago

I feel so sad for all of the marine life :(

Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey1 years ago

Reuse your plastic bags don't throw them out

Tim Keating
Tim Keating1 years ago

I just wanted to reply to Ganaisha C. re: there being “plenty of food and room”: Ganaisha, I’m not sure how you arrived at this conclusion, but I think the world’s non-human beings would disagree. Human populations have been wiping out wildlife since the dawn of Civilization (that is, only for the last 12,000 years or so of the two-million-years-or-so span of human existence). While there seemed to be plenty of food and room for non-Civilized humans, the human population is estimated to have been between 1 and 10 million. That was likely the last time that humans, as a whole, were sustainable on Earth. Since then, with agriculture being the main direct cause of clearing of ecosystems, humans started mass-extermination of non-humans.

So, while you seem to have some concerns for certain human populations (I presume you mean within certain national borders or regions) not replacing themselves, reducing the pressure to convert ecosystems is key to the survival of our species. This includes for production of stuff, not just food (in fact, stuff — including fuel — now rivals food as the primary reason for the clearing of ecosystems).

Darren Woolsey
Darren Woolsey1 years ago

Actually, children, teenagers, adolescents have a part to play in all this as well, not just adults, although they need to lead by example. But, kids, teenagers, adolescents have obviously been brought up on a diet of "can't be bothered," "it's someone else's problem," etc.

One of the things I've actually see happen, is young girls wilfully taking a blossomed rose from a tree and then trash it.

Cheryl coscia
cheryl coscia1 years ago

Once again man is involved. Why am I not surprised.

Stella Gambardella
Stella G.1 years ago

Stiamo distruggendo il nostro pianeta per incuria, avidità e noncuranza. Purtroppo siamo ancora troppo pochi a pensare al riciclo e quindi a servirci magari della stessa borsa più di una volta, per poi gettarla in modo adeguato. Grazie per l'articolo

Tim Keating
Tim Keating1 years ago

For those of you who continue to state the cop-out that humans are the plague on Earth or some such useless statements, please read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. “Humans” are no more the problem than are lions. The problem is the mythology of one culture of humans, the culture we refer to as “Civilization”. Once one understands the problem, then the solutions become much more apparent. The solution isn’t the mass suicide of the human organism (one, because that will simply never happen, at least not consciously, and two, because it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater).

Secondly, for Carol S. specifically, the name of our planet is “Earth” with a capital “E”, not “earth”, which is the word we use for the soil. Perhaps if people gave the organism that is our planet the same respect (linguistically and thus mentally) we give to the title of a movie or to our pet, that would be a good start.

Kuldar Lepp
Kuldar Lepp1 years ago

The smart thing for you, people who can't keep earth clean of plastics, to do is to reuse the plastic bags, not through them away after a single trip to the shop.

JOSE HONRADO
JOSE Honr1 years ago

We know the potential harm of plastic yet continue using them for convenience.

Howard Crosse
Howard Crosse1 years ago

The EU is attempting to enacte legislation that would restrict the use of plastic bags and other wrappings across all European Union member states. Not surprisingly the plastics industry are trying to fight this! Hopefully other countries will follow the EU's lead.