Our oceans have been quietly filling up with plastic for approximately 50 years. Researchers began to realize that this was happening around 30 years ago. The findings of these realizations have been reaching the public for about 20 years. It is time to change how we use and think about plastic right now.
Our oceans are a complex, shifting network of currents:
Large, rotating oceanic currents are called "gyres". These gyres collect floating plastic debris and slowly funnel it toward the center, resulting in vast areas containing huge quantities of plastic pollution. We have discovered five major plastic gyres in our oceans, and several smaller ones off of Antarctica and Alaska.
All of this plastic ends up in the oceans due to litter on land entering water ways and illegal dumping.
While it is difficult to ascertain exact size of the gyres because of the constant shifting of the oceans, it has been estimated that the largest, the north pacific gyre, is roughly twice the size of the United States.
These vast areas of plastic debris are mostly composed of small fragments of plastic that has been broken down by harsh sunlight and ocean waves. Instead of imagining a gigantic floating plastic trash island, it is more accurate to envision a desolate expanse of plastic soup. In some areas, plastic particles outnumber zooplankton, the most important basic oceanic food source, 7 to 1.
Plastic pollution presents a physical threat, trapping, strangling and becoming ingested by many marine organisms and birds. Floating plastic also acts as a raft, transporting invasive species across the great distances of the ocean. Worst of all, plastics never truly break down, they just fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming chemicals in the water. These chemicals directly affect all animals that live in and eat from the ocean, human beings included.
Our success in targeting and eliminating plastic pollution will depend on our willingness to make changes in our individual daily lives. We need to speak out and lobby against single use plastics. Every day we can find new ways to avoid plastic and become inventive and creative about recycling. We can support those who are researching plastic pollution, and donate our time to picking up litter and marine debris.
It is never to late to change. Together, every day, we can make a difference.