A Sea of Plastic
Anyone who gets email has seen the one containing fraudulent predictions of Nostradamus. About four years ago, I received a similarly suspicious email stating that a researcher had found six times more plastic than plankton floating in the middle of the Pacific. This one struck a chord with me because of my knowledge of plastics. I wanted to find out if it was just a prank or, heaven forbid, the truth.
I tracked down the source, which was Captain Charles Moore, the founding director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF). He sent me a study he coauthored: “A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre” from Marine Pollution Bulletin — a well-respected, peer reviewed, scientific journal. The study substantiated his claim that “the mass of plastic was approximately six times that of plankton.” A large percentage of that is made up of tiny bits of plastic — called nurdles — that have not yet been made into a product.
The immediate realization that came to mind was the effect our lifestyle of lustful consumerism has on the world that sustains us. The realization has persisted, as it is deeply etched in my mind’s eye. Capt. Moore and I have spent a lot of time together since then. I’ve organized events for him and I’ve been on his research vessel, the O.R.V. Alguita. Luckily, when I was a teenager, my buddies had sail boats, but nothing like the Alguita. So I haven’t given up hope just yet that I might go for a sail with him.
In October 2002, the AMRF was awarded a $482,000 grant by the State Water Resources Control Board (California) to study how trash, plastics, and minute debris interfere with the natural functioning of the Los Angeles River, San Gabriel River watersheds and other waterways in California’s urban areas.
I spent a day in mid-April with Capt. Moore at his lab in Long Beach, California for a close up look. The AMRF shares harbor space with other organizations. It has many rooms where staff and volunteers sort, categorize, quantify, and store the debris collected in this well-funded study. During my initial walkthrough with Capt. Moore I saw all shapes, sizes, and colors of plastic that have been sampled. The range of large- to small-sized debris found during the Alguita’s voyages to the middle of the North Pacific gyre is one large piece, such as a tire or large float, to about a million of the nurdles in a sampling area of about one kilometer. For every hundred square meters of sea surface there is half about one pound of plastic debris, or roughly three million tons in the thousand-mile course through the gyre.
There is more than one “garbage patch” the size of Texas that is nearly covered with floating plastic. In Moore’s own words, “It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”
We only see the stuff that floats. But it can sink and/or float depending on the environmental conditions of the ocean. Because the specific gravity of much of it is roughly that of the ocean water, it can rise in rough seas and sink during the calms. Sunlight, which has very limited penetration in the water, breaks it down into continuously smaller particles until it reaches molecular size.
Some of the plastic debris has taken a fifty-year voyage in violent seas since it was first produced. And it doesn’t appear to be breaking down into something that is even close to the natural materials of the earth they once came from. There are estimates of how long this will take, but it clearly takes more than fifty years.
According to a study published in 1992 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), plastic pellets were one of the most abundant types of debris found in US harbors of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. These nurdles are the feed stock of the plastics industry and come in a variety of shapes — spherical, ovoid, and cylindrical — with sizes ranging from one to five millimeters diameter. In 1992, nearly sixty billion pounds of these plastic pellets were made annually in the United States and are shipped via train, truck, and ship. The most commonly produced resins include polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene. Considering the magnitude of the problem, the most logical sources would be somewhere along the supply chain of the plastics industry.
How does it get into the ocean?
The AMRF study is aimed at finding the source of the plastic, but it is more of a question of how it is permeating the ocean waters of the world. Since most of the plastic consists of pellets that have not even been made into a product, logic dictates that the source is the plastics manufacturers, which are scattered throughout the four-county region where the study is taking place. There are literally hundreds of manufacturers and each has direct access to the ocean via storm drains and rivers. The EPA has known of this global problem for more than a decade. Yet the problem is only getting worse, is still unregulated and nothing is done beyond studies of the problem.
What harm does it do?
For a coastal municipality such as Long Beach, California that has been hard hit by the problem, it is a major financial headache. It clogs up any kind of filter, no matter what the size of its opening. Boat engines and propellers are hindered by it as well. Tourists scorn it and shun areas where plastic is most abundant.
The real damage is what most untrained eyes miss: choking and starving birds, turtles, and other animals. The size of the debris that gets lodged in their throats, stomachs, and or intestines determines their fate. Similar to plastic getting into our food from packaging, it migrates into the water and animals that eat it, along with chemicals that are attracted to the nurdles like hitchhikers. These hitchhikers are the metabolites — breakdown products — of DDT and other dioxin-like chemicals that accumulate up to one million times greater than the ambient seas concentrations. The confluence of the many thousands of man-made synthetic chemicals along with other environmental factors such as rising ocean temperatures is drastically reducing the fertility and populations of many ocean species, as well as overall biodiversity.
We cannot wait for more studies. If there is any time left to turn this around, there isn’t much. My own opinion is that there is no good plastic and that we must immediately end or at least put severe limitations on its use.
1. Moore et al. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin, v.42, n.12, Dec01 http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Moore-North-Pacific-Central-Gyre.htm
2.State Water Resources Control Board (California) press release. Research to Prevent Coastal Water Pollution Gets Nearly $500,000 State Water Board Grant. SWRCB 02-017 29oct04. http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/press/2002/pdf/02-017.pdf
3, 4.Charles Moore. Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean, Plastics, Plastics, Everywhere. Natural History v.112, n.9, Nov03. http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Moore-Trashed-PacificNov03.htm
5. USEPA. Plastic Pellets in the Aquatic Environment: Sources and Recommendations. United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water (WH-556F) EPA 842/B-92/010 Dec92. http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Plastic-Aquatic-EPA842B92010-Dec92_ES.htm
6. Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment – Environ. Sci. Technol. 2001, 35, 318-324 http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Pellets-Transport-Medium.htm