by Amanda Toth
Informative piece about the waste in our oceans
By: Amanda Toth
One plastic Starbucks cup from my iced caramel macchiato. Three plastic bags from a Target run. One plastic fork, one plastic knife, one plastic water bottle, and a cardboard container from Panera. A four-page receipt from Banfield pet hospital to pick up a medication (and the plastic bottle the pills came in). This is all the garbage I accumulated from one Saturday afternoon.
Our society is currently a disposable society. Manufacturers design products to be used once and thrown away. Types of these disposable products include plastic bottles, bags, razors, milk containers, straws, and food packaging. It is estimated that 50% of plastic products are used just once and thrown away. Every year we produce more than 300 million tons of plastic, and more than 8 million tons of that plastic end up in the ocean (plasticoceans.org).
According to Avio, "Plastic production increased dramatically worldwide over the last 60 years, passing from 0.5 million tons/yr in 1960 to almost 300 million tons in 2013" ("Plastics and Microplastics in the Oceans: From Emerging Pollutants to Emerged Threat"). Our plastic use has increased drastically, and it's harming our environment in ways most of us don't see.
A couple years ago, the Netflix movie, A Plastic Ocean, documented the severity of pollution in our oceans. The story beings when journalist Craig Leeson goes on a mission to find the endangered blue whale. Instead, Leeson finds mouth-dropping amounts of plastic in the oceans. His mission over the next four years is to document the atrocious conditions of our oceans while finding solutions to the problem.
What is a Plastic Ocean?
Visualize your favorite ocean. Maybe it's a beach you visited as a child, or a beach you're going to this summer with your family. Now, instead of that pristine blue water, picture plastic bottles and garbage bags floating on top the water. So much plastic floats on top that you can't see the blue water. Even if you go underneath to see the ocean floor, you'll find garbage and empty bottles there too. No matter what, you can't get that perfect picture. Plastic litters every picture That is a plastic ocean - an ocean littered with pollution that humans have created (see Figure 1). Plastic not only lies at the top of the ocean. Plastic can be found floating in the water. It can be found at the very
bottom. It is on the shore of the ocean. It is everywhere and in every size. Small pieces, big pieces, and even beads from our cosmetic products.
Even if you recycle, plastic still ends up in the ocean.
What ends up in the water is from litter or from garbage being swept up by the wind. It ends up in storm drains and goes through our sewer pipes. The article "Plastic Debris in the Open Oceans" states, "Continental plastic litter enders the ocean largely through storm-water runoff, flowing into watercourses or directly discharged into coastal waters. Eliminating the plastic input to the ocean is a complex task" (Coznar).
Once plastic ends up in the sewers, the current in the water picks it up and sweeps it into the ocean. The sunlight causes the plastic to break into smaller pieces, called microplastics. Bird and other marine life, such as fish and seagulls, eat the plastic thinking it's food. Both large plastic and microplastics are pulled into ocean gyres.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
An ocean gyre is a naturally occurring, large system of circular currents in our oceans. There are five major gyres: North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean. They are formed by wind patterns and the earth's rotation. Like a whirlpool, the water spins
around a central axis but at a slower speed (see Figure 2). When plastic drifts into our rivers and oceans, a great deal of it is pulled into the ocean gyres. They end up creating big patches of garbage in the ocean.
One of the largest garbage patches in the world is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the Pacific trash vortex. It is happening in the North Pacific gyre. The patch goes from North America to Japan. What happens is that the current from the gyre sucks in the garbage and pulls it into the middle. The middle of the gyre is calm and stable and as a result the plastic goes into the middle and gets trapped.
Popular belief and photos online make you believe there is a plastic island floating the Pacific (see Figure 3). This is not actually the case. A majority of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is microplastics ("Great Pacific Garbage Patch"). Think of it like soup. The plastic does not float to the top like the fat drippings. The plastics and microplastics are specaled throughout like the herbs or pepper.
Why do we use plastic?
It all comes down to low production cost. Plastic is cheap to make for manufacturers and the benefits include moldibility, durability, and resistance.
John Wesley Hyatt created the first type of artificial plastic. In 1863, he saw a New York billiard company offering a reward of $10,000 to anyone would could invent a product to replicate ivory ("John Wesley Hyatt"). During the late 1800s, the ivory trade was in full gear and a hot commodity.
After many experiments, Hyatt eventually created Celluloid. Celluloid was the first plastic which was an affordable alternative to ivory. Celluloid is made from nitrocellulose, a highly flammable chemical compound, and Camphor, an organic compound with a musty smell. Today, camphor is used as a moth repellent. Not only was Celluloid cheap to make, it was tough, durable and resistant to water and oils.
In 1907, Leo Baekeland created the type of plastic that is similar to how we make plastic today. He called this plastic Bakelite and was composed of phenol, like alcohol but has a higher boiling point, and formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a flammable gas and is now known as a cancer-causing agent and extremely harmful.
Today, according to the American Chemistry Council, plastics are made from various elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine, and sulfur. Plastics are made from a chain link of molecules called polymers. A molecule is the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical compound. It is a group of atoms, the basic building block of life, bonded together. A monomer is a single molecule that can be bonded (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Monomer vs polymer. Source: "NEED-MEDIA with Keywords: Polymer, Monomer." NEEDMEDIAs Polymermonomer Photos RSS, need-media.smugmug.com/keyword/polymer;monomer/.
Modern plastics are made to resemble natural occurring substances. The American Chemistry Council states, "The manufactured or synthetic plastics are often designed to mimic the properties of natural materials. Plastics, also called polymers, are produced by the conversion of natural products or by the synthesis from primary chemicals generally coming from oil, natural gas, or coal." Plastic is created to resemble natural substances; however, many plastic products are very unnatural and are harmless to the environment.
Plastics are also made with toxic resins.
BPA. Many plastics today are made from bisphenol-A or BPA. BPA is a chemical resin added to certain plastics such as food containers and water bottles to harden them.
According to "The Quiet Revolution in Plastics," "Each year several billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States. The CDC has found, in results consistent with those found in other countries, that 95 percent of human urine samples tested have measurable BPA levels. BPA has also been detected in human serum, breast milk (in higher concentrations than in blood serum), maternal and fetal plasma, amniotic fluid, and placental tissue at birth" (Wargo 272). We use so much plastic that plastic is ending up in our bodies.
BPA has been a controversial topic and has been linked to "to obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, infertility, neurological problems and asthma" (Mole, "Doubts Grow over BPA Replacement: Bisphenol S Poses the Same Health Risks, Researchers Suggest"). The opinions of BPA by scientists range from there being no risk at all to BPA should be avoided. The issue is that BPA has only been thoroughly studied in animals, not humans. The main theory is BPA acts as a hormone in our body and disrupts normal hormone levels.
The American Chemistry Council is one of the main voices stating BPA is not an issue.
At the 2007 U.S. National Institutes of Health conference, a panel of thirty-eight scientists issued a warning about BPA saying that it is a cause for concern. Evidence proves that has changed brain behavior as well as changed in mammary and prostate glands in animals. The possibility that BPA can affect humans this way cannot be dismissed (Wargo 275).
DEHP. Plastics use another resin, DEHP. Diethylhexyl phthalate, or DEHP, is a chemical additive used to make plastic more flexible, specifically vinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is typically used to make pipes, flooring, children's toys, food containers.
Wargo states, "Each year several hundred million pounds of DEHP are produced in the United States, most of which are added to PVC to provide varying degrees of flexibility. DEHP does not bind chemically to PVC; thus it can easily separate from it and move through the environment or be absorbed by plants, animals, and humans" (276). He also states that DEHP is commonly found in breast milk, blood, saliva, and is more common in children. Just like BPA, there are arguments on whether the resin is toxic.
Not only do plastics contain toxins that are possibly poisonous, the plastic in the oceans absorb the chemicals that are free floating in the ocean.
Plastic hurts, and even kills, marine life.
All marine life is impacted by plastic. According to Plasticoceans,org, 90% of seabirds have plastic pieces in their stomachs (see Figure 5).
When blue whales eat, they open their mouth and suck up whatever is in their path. They feed off the fish, but they end up taking in plastic as well. Plastic lighters, netting, bottles. All this stuff is just in the ocean (see Figure 6).
In a study by C.M Rochman et al, they sampled fish in California and Indonesia to research the amount of microplastic being ingested by fish. They found that the fish in Indonesia had 3x more plastic debris removed from their stomachs versus the fish caught in California. They conclude that the major reason for such higher levels of debris in Indonesia is because they lack advanced waste management system. ("Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption").
Regardless, Indonesia supplies much of our fish. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Indonesia is a top importer of shrimp and tilapia for the United States. The United States is the largest consumer of fish, second to China. In 2011, 91% of fish the United States consumed was imported ("The Surprising Sources of Your Favorite Seafoods"). Marine animals are ingesting all that toxic plastic, including the fish we import for consumption.
Plastic is not biodegradable.
Plastic is appealing because it is durable, but that durability is a downside. According to Avio and team, because it is so durable, the "degradation of plastic objects can take several hundred years" ("Plastics and microplastics in the oceans: From emerging pollutants to emerged threat"). Every bit of plastic we have created is still somehow on the planet. It is not biodegradable, but it is photodegradable. This isn't much better though. This means that the sunlight breaks the plastic up into tiny pieces of plastic. We commonly refer to these pieces as microplastics (see Figure 7).
When plastic is smaller, there are more opportunities for plastic to be ingested. "Microplastics (b5 mm), which are smaller, have recently drawn attention because they not only make their way into the marine environment but are also more easily ingested by marine organisms; they may thus act as vectors for the chemical transfer of pollutants within the food chain" (Plastic waste in the marine environment: A review of sources, occurrence and effects).
Steps in reducing your impact.
Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.
Hopewell argues in the article, "Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities," "Recycling is one of the most important actions currently available to reduce these impacts and represents one of the most dynamic areas in the plastics industry today. Recycling provides opportunities to reduce oil usage, carbon dioxide emissions and the quantities of waste."
As a community, it is important that we recycle all plastic, not just plastic bottles. We need to recycle plastic bags, children's toys, razors, lighters, etc. According to Plasticoceans.org, only 50 percent of plastic is used once and thrown away. Not only should we recycle the plastic we do use, we should consciously cut plastic out of our lives. Some examples include:
We can also take tips for other countries. For example, Germany has had great success in reducing their impact on the environment. Germany has a "Green Dot" system. Manufacturers must pay a fee to use plastic packaging. The more plastic they use, the more of a fee they pay. They also have bins everywhere for recycling glass, plastic, and paper, and are all color coded depending on the type of recyclable.
Germany isn't the only place improving their impact on the environment. Rwanda has banned plastic bags. Sweden converts garbage into electricity. Switzerland charges you by the bag to use their landfill.
Austria has the highest recycling rate in the world, at 63%. The United States has a recycling rate of 34% (planetaid.org).
Reconsidering my impact on the environment.
Looking around my house at all the plastic horrifies me. Everything I purchase is in plastic: lotion, shampoo, deodorant, strawberries, chicken, and eggs. That is just a small sampling of what I purchased at the grocery store yesterday.
If you are anything like me, you probably did not think twice about buying all these commodities wrapped in plastic. If you are like me, you probably recycle the plastic once you're done. But, if you are also like me, you probably never realized that just because you recycle, doesn't mean it ends up being recycled. It can still find its way in our ocean where it harms and kills innocent animals. Once you throw it away, it has to go somewhere.
As consumers, we have power over what we buy. We have power over the manufacturers producing the plastic and selling their products in plastic. If we stop buying products made with plastic, is it possible companies would start considering more sustainable options?
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Car, Andr, et al. "Plastic Debris in the Open Ocean." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 28, 2014, pp. 10239-10244. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23805735.
"Great Pacific Garbage Patch." National Geographic, 19 Sept, 2014. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/. Accessed 23 August 2018
Hopewell, Jefferson, et al. "Plastics Recycling: Challenges and Opportunities." Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, vol. 364, no. 1526, 2009, pp. 2115-2126. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40485985
"How Plastics are Made." American Chemistry Council. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/How-Plastics-Are-Made/. Accessed 22 August 2017.
"John Wesley Hyatt." Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Sept, 2013. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wesley-Hyatt. Accessed 19 August 2017.
Li, W.C. et al. " Plastic waste in the marine environment: A review of sources, occurrence and effects, Science of The Total Environment," Volume 566, 2016, Pages 333-349, ISSN 0048-9697, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.05.084. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969716310154)
Mole, Beth. "Doubts Grow over BPA Replacement: Bisphenol S Poses the Same Health Risks, Researchers Suggest." Science News, no. 7, 2015, p. 10. EBSCOhost,ezproxy.chatham.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsggo&AN=edsgcl.409069166&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Rochman, C. M. et al. "Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption". Sci. Rep. 5, 14340; doi: 10.1038/srep14340 (2015).
"The Surprising Sources of Your Favorite Seafoods." National Oceanic and Atomospheric Organization. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/aquaculture/archive/09_13_12_top_seafood_consumed.html. Accessed 22 August 2017.
Wargo, John. "The Quiet Revolution in Plastics." Green Intelligence: Creating Environments That Protect Human Health, Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 264-282. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nps02.21