Ocean, Plastic

Plastic Problem

“Think about the fact that almost every object you touch every day includes at least one component that is made of plastic. Then think about the fact that almost all plastic is made from petroleum.” – Ted Danson in his book Oceana

Plastics will degrade into small pieces until you can’t see them anymore (so small you’d need a microscope or better!). Because the ocean is a cold, dark place, this process happens slower in water than on land. But, do plastics fully “go away?” Full degradation into carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic molecules is called mineralization. Most commonly used plastics do not mineralize (or go away) in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. We call these pieces “microplastics” if they are less than 5mm long. Bio-based and truly biodegradable plastics break down in a compost pile or landfill, but are generally not designed to degrade as quickly in the ocean.

Plastic has the potential to harm fish and other wildlife in two main ways:

Direct Impacts – Studies have shown that fish and other marine life eat plastic. Plastics could cause irritation or damage to the digestive system. If plastics are kept in the gut instead of passing through, the fish could feel full (of plastic not food) and this could lead to malnutrition or starvation.

Indirect Impacts – Plastic debris accumulates pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) up to 100,000 to 1,000,000 times the levels found in seawater. PCBs, which were mainly used as coolant fluids, were banned in the U.S. in 1979 and internationally in 2001. It is still unclear whether these pollutants can seep from plastic debris into the organisms that happen to eat the debris and very difficult to determine the exact source of these pollutants as they can come from sources other than plastic debris.

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