Plastic Oceans: unimaginable pollution
The more you learn about the role of plastic pollution
in the oceans and how our health is affected, the more alarming this issue
becomes. The good news is that a new California coalition is forming to
deal with the disaster: Campaign
Against the Plastics Plague (CAPP). Check
the web link at bottom for more information. -
DROWNING IN AN OCEAN OF PLASTIC
By Stephen Leahy, Wired News, June 5, 2004
The United Nations has turned its attention to the oceans for World
Environment Day, and one of the main evildoers is a familiar one -
Marine trash, mainly plastic, is killing more than a million seabirds
and 100,000 mammals and sea turtles each year, said U.N. Secretary-
General Kofi Annan in a statement.
Plastic bags, bottle tops and polystyrene foam coffee cups are often
found in the stomachs of dead sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles and
others. The implications have many at the conference concerned. Last
April, Dutch scientists released a report on litter in the North Sea
and found that fulmars, a type of seagull, had an average of 30 pieces
of plastic in their stomachs.
In the sea, big pieces of plastic look like jellyfish or squid, while
small pieces look like fish eggs, says Bill Macdonald, vice president
of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a Long Beach, California-
based nonprofit environmental organization.
Macdonald, who is also an underwater filmmaker, said he has seen
albatross parents fly huge distances to feed their young a deadly diet
of plastic bottle caps, lighters and light sticks.
"The sheer volumes of plastic in oceans are staggering," he said. In
recent years Algalita researchers have sampled a huge area in the
middle of the North Pacific, and found six pounds of plastic for every
pound of algae.
About 250 billion pounds of raw plastic pellets are produced annually
worldwide and turned into a tremendous variety of products, from cars
and computers to packaging and pens.
About 20 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from ships or
offshore platforms; the rest is blown or washed off the land, says
Angela Corridore, a researcher with the U.S. Commission on Ocean
Policy. Not only does plastic kill marine animals that eat it or get
tangled in it and drown, but it also damages and degrades their
habitat, says Corridore. "That's bad for fish and people. No one wants
to go to a crappy-looking beach."
Plastic pellets are also magnets for toxic chemicals like DDT and
PCBs, becoming, in effect, poison pills. Japanese researchers found
that concentrations of these chemicals were as much as a million times
higher than in the water. Plastics themselves can leach endocrine-
disrupting chemicals like biphenyl A.
Macdonald has come across "snow drifts" of spilled pellets outside
plastic product manufacturing plants in Orange County. "It took about
three minutes for some of these to wash into a nearby creek during a
rain storm," he said.
Most plastics don't biodegrade. Unless removed, they'll remain in the sea
for hundreds of years, breaking up into ever-smaller particles. Recently
British scientists discovered that microscopic pieces of plastic can be found
everywhere in the oceans, even inside plankton, the keystone of the marine
The scientists also noted that the amount of plastic particles in the
oceans has at least tripled since the 1960s. The effect they have on
the marine ecosystems is unknown.
Plastic pollution in the oceans is less of an issue to Ransom Myers,
a leading fisheries scientist. Myers allows that there might be some
unforeseen impact on ocean ecosystems. "Our ability to understand
what's going on the oceans is phenomenally poor," he said. "The No.
1 threat to oceans right now is overfishing and habitat destruction by
In its preliminary report, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy said
time is running out for America's coasts and oceans. Among its
recommendations: establish a National Ocean Council within the White
House, stop subsidy programs that encourage overfishing and double
investment in ocean research.
Funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency to monitor
marine debris should also be restored, says Corridore.
Every year we're learning about something bad that's going on in the
seas, says Macdonald. "It's just dawning on people that the oceans are
in deep trouble."
* * *
The above article appeared in Wired
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