What’s the Influence of the Toxic Pollutants Stored in Plastic on The Ocean?
By: Hima Reddy
The aging of plastics in our oceans is driving marine lives to extinction. Plastic pollution is taking the lives of over 100,000 marine mammals every year.
There are 700 species going extinct in the coming years due to 270,000 tons of plastic debris floating in the ocean. Some of these animals include seabirds, sea turtles, toothed whales, bacteria, and crabs.
This article discusses the relationship between plastics, ocean pollution, and cleanup efforts.
Why is Understanding Plastic Pollution Important?
Plastic aging in oceans is a threat to our marine environment. The plastic floating in seawater breaks down into tiny particles. These small pieces of plastic, also called microplastics or micropollutants, are tiny particles within the seawater.
The most common plastics in the ocean are soda bottles and drinking water bottles. These plastics consist of chemicals such as Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polybutyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT).
Leaves, wood, food (fruits/vegetables), and seaweeds have decomposing properties and breakdown in the ocean. Plastics don’t have these properties, and they fail to decompose, causing them to pollute the ocean for years on end. Among all, PET is the hardest to destroy.
Also, plastic has the properties to absorb and release heavy metals. These heavy metals are toxic to the ocean ecosystem and marine life. Some of the toxic heavy metals are lead, cadmium, zinc, and copper.
Toxic metals enter the seawater through pesticides and from industrial waste.
These toxins are damaging the human food chain through marine life. A great example is seafood. Marine life consumes microplastics containing these toxic pollutants.
Micropollutants include microplastics, nanoplastics, and chemicals (released from pharmacy industries and sewage dump).
Oysters and mussels showed traces of microplastic particles. These were the species cultured for human consumption.
The digestive tract of fish and shellfish contained pollutant debris. Seafood samples from Indonesia showed plastic pollutants. USA seafood study samples reported fibers. The fish samples selected were being sold for human consumption.
There is a possible effect on human health if they consume polluted seafood. Neurodegeneration in humans is a serious health condition caused due to ocean pollution.
Kedzierski’s team used three varieties of plastics to study its aging property in marine environment. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polybutyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT) are the three plastics chosen.
The geographic location of this study was Kernevel harbor in the Bay of Lorient, France. The samples were submerged in water with lantern nets under the floating deck of boats. One and a half years was the total time of the study.
Munier and Bendell studied the properties of plastic in nine intertidal regions. Burrard Inlet, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada are the regions selected. Plastic debris ranged from personal hygiene to solar cells. Different plastics considered are low-density polyethylene (LDPE), nylon, polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), PVC, and PET.
Research on ocean plastic aging and toxins showed varying results
- PVC contains a high amount of lead and copper absorbed into the surface.
- PVC releases zinc and cadmium, both are chemical pollutants.
- Plastic rigidity and UV protection are cadmium properties.
- Plastic absorbs zinc, cadmium, lead, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese, chromium, and aluminum.
- Extreme levels of acid extracted metal.
- Human health is at risk due to plastic toxins.
- Countries with poor waste management are most affected by plastic pollution.
Research studies show evidence of:
- Microplastics and nanoplastics as toxic pollutants for the trophic chain.
- The main source of micropollutants in the ocean is from wastewater treatment plants.
- Micropollutants BPA and PHT are causing damage to human health through seafood.
- Pollutants are a threat to human immunological, endocrinological, reproductive, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems.
- Contaminated seawater affects fish farming.
- Deep seafloor contamination by microplastics and nanoplastics.
- Effect on seafood for human consumption
Sources of ocean pollution are
- Sewage dumping
- The garbage from towns and cities
- Coastal landfills
- Poor sorting of litter bins
- Fishing equipment litter
- Industrial waste dumping into rivers and oceans
- Cruise ships and shipping pollution
- Beach pollution
- Oil spills
How Does Plastic Affect the Oceans?
A third of the seabird population has shown proof of plastic consumption. An interesting fact is seabirds on the shore feed their chicks plastic. The birds think the caps of the plastic bottle is food. Since 1988, an increase in plastic pollution has damaged the seabird population.
Every year, there are millions of seabirds killed. This includes the death of 100,000 marine mammals and turtles. Marine turtles are the first known marine species in threat of extinction.
Plastic pollution affects a total of 267 species of marine animals. Fishing net strangulations in seals, dolphins, and turtles are increasing every day.
A study conducted in the eastern Mediterranean Sea showed a high concentration of microplastics. The hot spots for marine microplastic pollution are the Yellow and Mediterranean Sea.
Microplastics float as tiny particles resembling marine organisms.
Whales, dolphins, and fishes consider microplastic to be jellyfish, phytoplankton, or small invertebrates. Marine animals suffer from intestinal blockage and other complications from plastic ingestion. Plastic strangulation has caused deaths in marine animals.
Conservation International, a non-profit organization, reports several facts about ocean pollution. The Number of plastic in the ocean outnumbers the fish population and the weight of plastic is equal to 57,000 blue whales.
There are a total of five garbage patches around the world. The rotating ocean current form all these garbage patches. The patches are a gyre of marine debris including plastic, litter, and fishing equipment.
The Great Pacific garbage patch is the largest in the world. It’s located between Hawaii and California.
Another huge threat to our oceans is oil spills. These catastrophic spills affect dolphins, sea otters, whales, marine birds, and many more. Sea turtles, shellfish, and fishes are also hurt. The mammals digest the oil causing irreparable damage to their health.
Research studies have observed harsh chemicals and poison in mammals. Other concerns are reproduction, growth rate, and death. Seaweeds, corals, and marine plants are facing the danger as well. These details were from NOAA— National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. They report on our environmental conditions.
Attempts to Solve The Plastic And Microplastic Pollution in Oceans
Researcher Michelle Sigler explores methods to control plastic pollution
- Garbage tracking
- Collecting plastic from great ocean garbage patches
- Innovative ways of plastic recycling
- Stop plastic production
Researchers urge for a change in human behavior to reduce plastic production. In the future, social marketing and wildlife tourism hope to bring behavioral change.
Introducing innovative ways to increase the knowledge base on plastic pollution. Motivating humans to change behavior towards protecting the environment is another attempt.
Interceptor 2.0, a boat floating machine is trying to solve plastic pollution in rivers. A Dutch non-profit organization “The Ocean Cleanup” took initiative to develop the system. This system helps to collect plastic debris in rivers before reaching the oceans.
Professor Vasudevan patented the use of non-recyclable plastics for tar roads. Plastic cups, shopping bags, and foam packaging are impossible to recycle. These are the raw materials used to construct tar roads. Many states have mudslides on the West coast and plastic tar mix can end back into the Ocean.
The use of plastics in tar roads has shown a reduction in potholes. This invention might help in the reduction of accumulation of plastic in dump yards and oceans.
Is Ocean Blue Project Supporting Ocean Clean-Up Efforts?
Ocean Blue Project helps to remove microplastic from oceans by:
- Organizing beach and river cleanups
- Providing solutions to keep pollutants from entering ecosystems
- Community cleanup
- Collaborative community-driven service-learning projects
- Youth education
Ocean Blue Organization has:
- Used machines to extract microplastic.
- Successfully cleaned 181,273 pounds of debris and microplastic from the ocean, with goals to remove 1 million pounds by the year 2025.
- Aims to collect thousands of pounds of microplastic.
- Plans to expand the project into 200 ocean cleanup organizations.
- Planted 8900 shrubs and trees
5800 volunteers are helping save the environment through the “Ocean Blue Project”. More details and accurate updates can be found here.
Author Bio: Hima Reddy is a Ph.D. student in Information Systems. Also a software engineer, developer, programmer, and webmaster. Passion for creative writing, minimalism, and environment protection.