Plastic debris


Main article: Marine debrisSee also: Plastic pollution § Oceansmute swan builds a nest using plastic garbage.

Photo by Leonid Danilov on

Marine debris is mainly discarded human rubbish which floats on, or is suspended in the ocean. Eighty percent of marine debris is plastic – a component that has been rapidly accumulating since the end of World War II.[53] The mass of plastic in the oceans may be as high as 100,000,000 tonnes (98,000,000 long tons; 110,000,000 short tons).[54]

In a study published by Environmental Science & Technology, Schmidt et al. (2017) calculated that the Yangtze, Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, Nile, Ganges, Pearl River, Amur, Niger, and the Mekong “transport 88–95% of the global [plastics] load into the sea.”[55][56]


Discarded plastic bagssix pack ringscigarette butts and other forms of plastic waste which finish up in the ocean present dangers to wildlife and fisheries.[57] Aquatic life can be threatened through entanglement, suffocation, and ingestion.[58][59][60] Fishing nets, usually made of plastic, can be left or lost in the ocean by fishermen. Known as ghost nets, these entangle fishdolphinssea turtlessharksdugongscrocodilesseabirdscrabs, and other creatures, restricting movement, causing starvation, laceration, infection, and, in those that need to return to the surface to breathe, suffocation.[61]The remains of an albatross containing ingested flotsam.

Many animals that live on or in the sea consume flotsam by mistake, as it often looks similar to their natural prey.[62] Plastic debris, when bulky or tangled, is difficult to pass, and may become permanently lodged in the digestive tracts of these animals. Especially when evolutionary adaptions make it impossible for the likes of turtles to reject plastic bags, which resemble jellyfish when immersed in water, as they have a system in their throat to stop slippery foods from otherwise escaping.[63] Thereby blocking the passage of food and causing death through starvation or infection.[64][65]

Plastics accumulate because they don’t biodegrade in the way many other substances do. They will photodegrade on exposure to the sun, but they do so properly only under dry conditions, and water inhibits this process.[66] In marine environments, photodegraded plastic disintegrates into ever-smaller pieces while remaining polymers, even down to the molecular level. When floating plastic particles photodegrade down to zooplankton sizes, jellyfish attempt to consume them, and in this way the plastic enters the ocean food chain.[67][68]

Many of these long-lasting pieces end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals,[69] including sea turtles, and black-footed albatross.[70]In a 2008 Pacific Gyre voyage, Algalita Marine Research Foundation researchers began finding that fish are ingesting plastic fragments and debris. Of the 672 fish caught during that voyage, 35% had ingested plastic pieces.[71]

Plastic debris tends to accumulate at the centre of ocean gyres. The North Pacific Gyre, for example, has collected the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“, which is now estimated to be one to twenty times the size of Texas (approximately from 700,000 to 15,000,000 square kilometers). There could be as much plastic as fish in the sea.[72] It has a very high level of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column. In samples taken in 1999, the mass of plastic exceeded that of zooplankton (the dominant animal life in the area) by a factor of six.[53][73]Great Pacific garbage patch — Pacific Ocean currents have created 3 “islands” of debris.[74]


Midway Atoll, in common with all the Hawaiian Islands, receives substantial amounts of debris from the garbage patch. Ninety percent plastic, this debris accumulates on the beaches of Midway where it becomes a hazard to the bird population of the island. Midway Atoll is home to two-thirds (1.5 million) of the global population of Laysan albatross.[75] Nearly all of these albatross have plastic in their digestive system[76] and one-third of their chicks die.[77]

Toxic additives used in the manufacture of plastic materials can leach out into their surroundings when exposed to water. Waterborne hydrophobicpollutants collect and magnify on the surface of plastic debris,[54] thus making plastic far more deadly in the ocean than it would be on land.[53] Hydrophobic contaminants are also known to bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, biomagnifying up the food chain and putting pressure on apex predators. Some plastic additives are known to disrupt the endocrine system when consumed, others can suppress the immune system or decrease reproductive rates.[73]

Floating debris can also absorb persistent organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBsDDT, and PAHs.[78] Aside from toxic effects,[79] when ingested some of these affect animal brain cells similarly to estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected wildlife.[70] Saido, a chemist with the College of Pharmacy, conducted a study in Nihon University, Chiba, Japan, that discovered, when plastics eventually decompose, they produce potentially toxic bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer into the water.[80] These toxins are believed to bring harm to the marine life living in the area.

A growing concern regarding plastic pollution in the marine ecosystem is the use of microplastics. Microplastics are little beads of plastic less than 5 millimeters wide, and they are commonly found in hand soaps, face cleansers, and other exfoliators. When these products are used, the microplastics go through the water filtration system and into the ocean, but because of their small size they are likely to escape capture by the preliminary treatment screens on wastewater plants.[81] These beads are harmful to the organisms in the ocean, especially filter feeders, because they can easily ingest the plastic and become sick. The microplastics are such a concern because it is difficult to clean them up due to their size, so humans can try to avoid using these harmful plastics by purchasing products that use environmentally safe exfoliates.




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