Plastic trash articles litter the world’s oceans. It will likely take centuries to decompose. Objects such as paper and wooden products will breakdown in seawater. Metal pieces of garbage tend to sink to the ocean floor where they degrade.
Plastic has two special features. First, it is buoyant. It floats or lingers just below the surface. Second, plastics require 500 to 1,000 years to decompose. During that process, it becomes small confetti sized objects that fish consume.
How much plastic trash is out there? The Synthesis and Algalita Marine Research Institute and the National Center for the Ecological Analysis estimate 200 million tons. There are close to 47,000 plastic objects per square mile of water and that does not take into consideration plastic found below the ocean’s surface.
People dump an estimated 14 billion pounds of trash into the ocean every year. For decades, trash barges and ships at sea have deposited their refuse into the ocean. Recreational boaters, merchant, naval, and cruise ships routinely dump trash overboard. One percent of the ocean’s trash derives from sewage drainage.
Currents carry the plastic trash around the world. Grocery bags have washed up in Antarctica. The trash gets caught in five ocean gyres scattered around the world. Some of the debris has conglomerated into solid floating masses. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be 434,960 to 9.32 million square miles. That amounts to .5 to 8.1 percent of the Pacific Ocean’s total surface area.
The vast amounts of plastic trash articles littering the world’s oceans have hampered the search for Malaysian Flight 370. A New Zealand plane spotted 70 objects thought to be from the missing plane. The items turned out to be plastic containers and tangled fishing lines. A French satellite recently spotted a 75 foot object first thought to be a wing. A closer inspection revealed the debris was merely scrap.
Anna Cummins, the co-founder of the 5 Gyres Project, has a difficult time explaining the vast amounts of plastic trash littering the oceans. When people venture out to sea, they generally see blue water and marine life. It is unfortunate there is not an island of trash to help visualize the problem.
The media has created the misconception of a Texas sized Pacific Garbage Patch floating around the ocean as a solid collective mass. Although there may be floating debris patches the size of a sailboat, most of the plastic trash flow in smaller or scattered formations.
A growing portion of the plastic is too small for dredging. It has become a thin soup that mixes with algae and plankton that fish consume. Small lantern fish have been caught and dissected. Within their stomachs were confetti sized plastic chunks too large for them to digest. The lantern fish are food for tuna and other fish that people consume.
Cummins wants legislation passed holding companies responsible for their end life products. She also wants to educated consumers on the impact plastic trash has when dumped into the ocean.
Such legislation would require international support. It would also require a united effort to monitor and fine industries. Dredging to collect the larger pieces of trash floating below the ocean surface would need to be part of the legislation along with beach cleanups when trash washes ashore. Plastic trash articles littering the world’s oceans are a problem people must address before the situation becomes worse.
By Brian T. Yates
5 Gyres Project