Virtually all of the plastic ever produced has been created since WWII. Prior to that, plastic products and packaging as we know them did not exist. Products made from plastic dominate our lives, and in many ways have improved the quality of life for humans. In 2015, 380 million metric tons of plastic was manufactured compared to 2 million metric tons in 1950. Unfortunately, with all of the attention going into the creation of plastic products to revolutionize your life, there was virtually no research or development to consider the end of life for these products. Flash forward 75 years and we are a planet with a plastic problem.
Since plastic is oil-based and so durable, when plastic decomposes it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics, but never really biodegrades. Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic smaller than the head of an eraser, around 5 mm in size.
What happens when plastic enters the ocean?
More than 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year. When plastic products enter the ocean, they are degraded into smaller microplastic fragments by sunlight (photo-degradation), saltwater (chemical degradation), and bacteria (microbial degradation). Because plastic is oil based and not water based, many human-produced toxins and pollutants that are also oil-based and have like-wise been washed into the ocean, will stick to microplastics. Many persistent organic pollutants and toxins like PCBs, pesticides, and petroleum-based fertilizers readily adhere to these small plastic particles. Some chemicals that have adsorbed onto the plastics may be a million times more concentrated compared to the surrounding water column. Coupled with the bisphenol A, phthalates, colorants, and flame-retardants that were originally added to the plastics during their manufacture, the resulting mixture of seawater and microplastics becomes a not-so-appetizing stew of Plastic Soup.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Many people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is within the open ocean gyre created by sea currents located between California and Japan. Ocean gyres are circular in nature and the dominant sea currents entrain marine debris, which causes it to accumulate within the middle of the gyre, especially plastics because they are lightweight and float (at first). What you may not be aware of is that every ocean gyre on Earth contains a garbage patch containing a slurry of barely visible microplastic debris. Nor is it constrained to the ocean gyres, as this Plastic Soup has been measured and documented at beaches and nearshore on virtually every coastline, and the Great Lakes may have the highest concentrations compared to all other sources.
Who’s Eating Plastic Soup?
Unfortunately, evidence is mounting that we are all eating Plastic Soup. A recent study by Schwabl et al. (2019) found 8 out of 8 participants’ stool contained microplastics, 20 very small pieces on average. This was a small study, and at the current time there is really not a lot of information about how much plastic humans are eating nor the health implications. Shrimp, oysters, corals, seabirds, and many fish species have all been documented consuming microplastics. Learn more from Florida Sea Grant at the Florida Microplastics Awareness Project.
What can I do?
Limit buying synthetic textiles – Avoid polyester, nylon, microfleece, and microfiber – these are all words for items made from plastic. Advanced wastewater treatment systems are inefficient at removing microplastics, especially the plastic fibers that enter the effluent stream through washing machines.
Don’t Litter – In the United States, we have sophisticated waste management systems for solid wastes that bring the trash from your home to landfills, so most plastic pollution that enters the ocean occurs from littering.
Recycle Correctly – You cannot place plastic bags, Styrofoam, paper towels, or tissues into recycling bins. You cannot recycle mixed materials so pull out the Styrofoam and plastic film packaging and dispose when you receive a delivery; recycle the cardboard only.
Limit buying plastic – You may have seen signs at local restaurants to “skip the straw.” I think we all know that skipping a straw is not going to put a dent in the annual global consumption of plastic products — these campaigns are designed to start the conversation about how we can ALL start using less plastic.
Without a healthy environment, we will not have healthy humans no matter where you live.