Trash, especially plastic waste, is a serious concern in the world's oceans. It can be found in varying quantities on the ocean surface and in deep sea sediments. Some estimate as much as 20 million tons of plastic ends up in the world's oceans each year.
Marine species can become entangled in plastic debris and suffocate. Ingestion of the plastics may block digestion and interfere with their ability to feed. Plastics remain in the ecosystem for a long time and not only contain chemicals, but also absorb other contaminants and accumulate them. As different species of fish ingest the plastic, these contaminants bioaccumulate and may enter the human food supply.
Nonnative species can attach to or get tangled in floating debris and be transported to new areas, as has been witnessed as debris from Japan that was set adrift by the 2011 tsunami washes ashore along the Pacific coastline of North America.
On March 22, 2018, scientists from the Netherlands-based Ocean Cleanup Foundation reported that the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," a plastic debris field in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, had grown to contain 1.8 trillion pieces of trash covering about 618,000 square miles (about four times the size of California) of deep ocean and weighing an estimated 80,000 metric tons. This is about sixteen times more plastic than previously estimated, with pollution levels increasing exponentially. You can learn more about these findings by reading the Ocean Cleanup Foundation's Press Release and the journal article published in Scientific Reports.
With bottles, cans, abandoned or lost fishing gear and other marine debris washing up on our shores each year, the University of Georgia and NOAA have teamed up to create the Marine Debris Tracker app to combat the marine debris problem. This app tracks where marine debris is accumulating and gives anyone with a smart phone an opportunity to be a part of the solution.
Micro-plastic pollution in our oceans is increasingly becoming an issue that all of us must face. As more research is showing, microplastics in the form of synthetic fibers, microbeads from cosmetic products, and raw materials from plastic production are showing up in all levels of the ocean ecosystem from zooplankton to the tissues of fish and on up the food chain. Larger plastic pieces are being found in the stomachs of baleen whales as they swallow sea water with the intention of filtering out krill and fish but unknowingly trap trash as well.
Have you ever thought about how plastic products are made?
The first step in the process is the production of "nurdles," which are defined as a very small bead or pellet of plastic which serves as raw material in the manufacture of plastic products. A manufacturer makes these small beads and then sells them by the tons to other manufacturers who then melt them down in molds to make whatever item they are producing. Through industrial spills or shipping accidents, nurdles wash into our waterways and oceans. Nurdles can be found on all of the beaches here in Point Reyes National Seashore.
What's the big deal?
Nurdles are the same size as many kinds of plankton and fish eggs, and are often mistaken for food by seabirds or other marine animals. Nurdles also absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants; seabirds or fish that have eaten nurdles have been found to have high levels of toxins in their tissue.
What can you do to help?
Go nurdling—sort of like a treasure hunt, but for trash! Keep an eye out for nurdles that have washed up on the beach. They can range in size and shape from a small roundish bead to a larger lentil-sized disc, and can be clear/opaque white to a variety of colors. Most have a flat side or a seam indicating that they are man-made and not a pebble. Use a colander to sift sand and pick up nurdles. Carry a container with a lid to put them in so that they don't spill back onto the beach after you’ve gathered them. Nurdles unfortunately cannot be recycled and so at this point the only options are to sequester them forever in a container or put them in the trash to go to the landfill. It's not ideal, but it can be argued that it's better to have them contained in a landfill then in the open ocean ecosystem.
Caution: Always wash your hands after touching any plastics that has been floating in the ocean, as they can have high concentrations of toxic chemicals on them.
Plastics are one of the most common pollutants found in our oceans. Plastics are found in or on our clothes, body wash and nearly everything else we touch (or even consume) on a daily basis. Plastic pollutants are not only crowding our seas, they are hurting sea turtles and other ocean wildlife. There are many things we can do to keep plastics out of our oceans. Here are ten easy things you can do today!
National Park Service
Baynham, J. 2018. Small Plastic, Big Problem. National Parks 92(3):18-20. Available at https://www.npca.org/articles/1862-small-plastic-big-problem (accessed on 22 October 2018).
Organizations working to raise awareness about and to reduce plastic pollution:
The 5 Gyres Institute
The Great Nurdle Hunt
The Ocean Cleanup
Plastic Pollution Coalition
Plastic Soup Foundation
Speak Up For Blue
Last updated: May 4, 2020