Where the plastic goes

Where the plastic goes

Recently, a thought provoking study on ocean plastics was published. In 2010 and 2011, after months of scouring the five major ocean gyres for plastic particulate, researchers found that 99% of all the plastic that was estimated to be floating on the ocean was missing. These findings stirred a flurry of discussion trying to assess just where the millions of tons of missing plastic debris went.

Keep in mind that humans produce around 300 million tons of plastic each year. An earlier study in the 1970s estimated that about 1% of that amount winds up in the ocean. This total is likely increased with expanded use of plastic throughout industries and the world’s population expansion. Therefore, we should expect to see at least 120 million tons of plastic garbage floating around in the high seas. The fact that this recent expedition found only an estimated 40,000 tons raised a lot of chatter to explain where the other millions of tons of trash went.

One theory suggests that pieces of photodegraded plastic have been mistaken for jellyfish and other feeder organisms. Larger fish eat these pieces of garbage, then we eat the larger fish. The toxic-filled plastic enters into our food stream. This concern has spread throughout the ocean community from finding massive amounts of plastic in the digestive tracts of dolphins, whales, turtles and even sharks.

Others speculate that the smaller pieces gather so much bacteria, algae and other micro-life forms that they build up enough mass to sink to the lower layers of the ocean. In this instance, digging slightly deeper beneath the surface, can reveal a sunken world of plastic junk.

The Rozalia Project, an organization whose mission is to protect, clean and restore our oceans, has found through exploring and restoration efforts with remote operated vehicles (ROVs) piles of subsurface garbage. These mounds actually begin to act like an artificial reef, attracting all sorts of marine life looking for food and shelter. This is a huge problem because the “trash reef” is made of toxic garbage and the animals it attracts can become plagued, diseased or completely smothered.

Regardless which theory surrounding the disappearing plastic is correct, the fact is, far too much trash is entering our oceans and ending up in places unknown. But what can we do about it?

Rachael Miller, Executive Director of the Rozalia Project, reminds us in her TedX talk that prevention of ocean debris “starts with personal responsibility.”

Rachael’s message comes through loud and clear – we can clean the ocean, but the fight starts at home.

Organizations throughout the world are attempting to combat this issue and help you kick your nasty trash habits:

No matter what, there is no excuse anymore. We all bear a piece of the responsibility for our impact on the world. We all must recognize that, take account and become better stewards of the planet. The time for action is now.

Turtle image via rozaliaproject.blogspot.com

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