Monday, September 23, 2019

The Dangers of Plastic Pollution to Marine Life

Mixed in with the natural trash along the shoreline is a great deal of plastic.
If you walk the Jersey Shore in the off-season you have the beach much to yourself. You might also take notice of more trash washing up because summer cleanup crews are not working. The trash that will be most common is plastic. Plastic accounts for up to 80% of litter in the ocean.

Millions of tons of disposable plastic that has found its way into our waters. The numbers and weight and size of the now famous garbage islands in the oceans of the world make it seem hopeless that we can clean it up.

Everyday plastic used in homes, schools, and businesses amazingly make their way to the world's oceans by many different routes. Yes, some of it is illegally dumped by water-going vessels. But much of it flows down rivers to be washed to the sea. Some are just dumped directly on the beaches and coastlines. Heavy rainstorms can carry plastic garbage into the oceans via sewer lines and storm drains. The bottle you see lying at the shoreline will be caught by a wave and taken hundreds or thousands of miles away before it washes ashore again.

Manufacturers are beginning to step up on the use, disposal, collection and recycling of their plastic products. An article on bottlestore.com states that:

Every year, between 8 and 12 million tons of plastic trash finds its way into the world's water. The sheer amount of ocean-borne plastic waste has accumulated into large concentrated spots in the world's oceans. These masses are known as garbage patches, and they are herded into large concentrations by ocean currents or gyres. Some of these patches are twice the area covered by the state of Texas. The first garbage patch was found in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore, who was in the midst of a sailing race in the Pacific. Since then scientists have found a total of five major plastic pollution patches. They exist in the Indian Ocean, as well as the north and south Pacific, and the north and south Atlantic oceans. When it comes to dumping plastic into the oceans, the worst offender is China, while thanks to new regulations; the United States is a distant 20th place.

This ocean pollution exhibit at a local aquarium in New Jersey shows how marine life
can easily confuse a jellyfish with a plastic bag.    Photo Credit: K.Graham/USFWS

At least 700 known species of marine animals are known to be harmed by plastic debris. Also birds and animal onshore are also affected by eating both plastic debriss or feeding on animals that have previously fed on plastics.

The dangers of plastic pollution to marine life are multiple. Animals can mistake plastic debris for food and consume it. The material can physically clog and overcrowd their stomachs, and because it is almost impossible to digest, it can result in the animal's death by starvation. Larger pieces, such as fishing nets and large bottles, containers, and rings can also entangle and immobilize wildlife, resulting in starvation, drowning or strangulation. Creatures who encounter floating plastic bags have been known to die from asphyxiation.

Scientists are also finds that invasive species of animals or plants may also ride on pieces of plastic to new areas where they may then threaten the native species.

Plastic debris from some types of plastic release toxic chemicals, such as vinyl chloride, styrene, and bisphenol-A, and can also attract other toxins, such as the insecticide DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Fish and other marine life that consume plastic may be killed by these toxins, or they might pass them onto humans and other creatures who consume them.

Plastics do break down in the ocean, but the process is slow. However, when it is reduced to small pebble, sand or micro sizes it is very difficult to remove and now resembles plankton, which is an essential part of the ocean food chain. Plastic waste is thought by scientists to outweigh zooplankton in the ocean now by a ratio of over 35 to one.

Is there any hope of turning the tide back on plastic pollution?

Current solutions can slow down and hopefully prevent the flow of plastic into the ocean, such as laws taxing or barring the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. Many municipalities have laws against dumping plastic into storm drains. The expansion of recycling programs to include more types of plastic has also been helpful, though many plastics recycling centers have more supply than demand. Consumer reusing plastic items, buying in bulk to reduce plastic packaging, and demandin better packaging standards from manufacturers will also help. Making environmentally conscious purchase decisions is an important step individuals can take: not buying beauty or hygiene products that use plastic microbeads (in toothpaste, body wash, etc.), buying fewer plastic water bottles, or minimally reusing them and recycling them or better yet using a more permanent non-plastic reusable bottle.

For more information about plastic pollution, its dangers to marine life, and how to prevent it, please see the links below.

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