The Ocean May Soon Contain More Plastic Than Fish

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Story at-a-glance -

  • An estimated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated in 192 coastal countries, with anywhere from 5 million to nearly 13 million metric tons of it entering the ocean
  • Unless waste management practices are improved, the amount of plastic entering oceans by 2025 may double
  • Currents channel plastic debris to even remote areas of the world, including the distant Arctic Sea and Southern Ocean

By Dr. Mercola

Staggering amounts of plastic waste, from water bottles and plastic bags to tiny microbeads and microfibers, are entering waterways worldwide. In 2015, researchers calculated that 275 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated in 192 coastal countries, with anywhere from 5 million to nearly 13 million metric tons of it entering the ocean.1

Worse still, they estimated that unless waste management practices are improved, the amount of plastic entering oceans by 2025 may double.2 Mismanaged waste is particularly problematic in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, which together make up the top five countries for plastic pollution.3

In the U.S., one of the top waste-generating countries, littering is a major issue, especially in the form of single-use plastics, such as soda bottles, drinking straws and potato chip bags. According to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, some plastic products persist for so long, even in salty ocean water, that they'll still be recognizable after 400 years.4

"The amount of unmanaged plastic waste entering the ocean — known as plastic-waste leakage — has reached crisis levels and has caused significant economic and environmental damage," they state in an Ocean Conservancy report on plastic waste.5

Eighty Percent of Ocean Plastic Comes From Land

Fisheries, fishing vessels and other ships contribute less than 20 percent of plastic debris in the oceans. The rest, more than 80 percent, starts off on land. Once in the ocean, it's known that nearly 700 species (and probably many more) are negatively impacted by such debris.

Sadly, at least 17 percent of impacted species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as near threatened or worse, and at least 10 percent of the species had ingested microplastics.6 A study published in Marine Policy revealed that ingestion and entanglement from litter poses the biggest threat to marine life, more so than chemical contamination.7

Plastic bags, balloons and utensils were particularly problematic, as seabirds, turtles and marine mammals commonly mistook them for food. That being said, microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters (mm) in diameter, are also consumed by marine life, with unknown consequences. Anne Marie Mahon, Ph.D., of the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland, told Irish Times:

"We know that they're in the human food chain because they're in fish … We know that plastics contain endocrine disruptors, which can be carcinogenic, so yeah, this is really of concern." She continued:8

… [Ninety] percent of microplastics channeled through the waste water treatment system is ending up in the sewage sludge and 10 percent is still going out in our treated water, which then goes back into our rivers and our lakes … We actually apply our sewage sludge mostly to agricultural land for tillage and we don't know or understand what happens to it after that."

Plastic Debris Is Dead-Ending in the Arctic Sea, Polluting the Antarctic

Currents in the Atlantic Ocean act as a type of "plastic conveyor belt," channeling plastic debris to even remote areas of the world, including the distant Arctic Sea. Fortunately, most of the Arctic waters the researchers surveyed were largely free of plastic debris.

However, high concentrations (hundreds of thousands of pieces per square kilometer, or a little over a half-mile) were noted "in the northernmost and easternmost areas of the Greenland and Barents seas."9 The size and shape of the plastics (small and weathered) suggested they had come not from local areas, but had traveled great distances.

Calling the area a "dead end" for the plastic debris, the researchers also hypothesized that the seafloor below would be a catch-all for accumulating plastic debris.10 In separate research, it was also revealed that plastic pollution has reached the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.

"It was thought that the Southern Ocean was relatively free of microplastic contamination; however, recent studies and citizen science projects in the Southern Ocean have reported microplastics in deep-sea sediments and surface waters," researchers wrote in the journal Science of the Total Environment.11

This means that two of the most remote areas of the planet, also considered to be among the most pristine and fragile, are now being impacted by plastic pollution flowing in from the rest of the world.

Most Ocean Plastic Breaks Down Into a Toxic Soup

It's estimated that 165 million tons of plastic are polluting the world's oceans, but when you calculate microplastic, the kind that's found deep beneath the surface, the number is probably far higher.12 Plastic trash is of particular concern, as bits and pieces of plastic are mistaken for food by birds and sea animals.

Debris in the ocean also blocks sunlight from which plankton and algae sustain themselves, and this has negative implications on up the food chain, as it eventually becomes micronized and winds up in some of the seafood you eat. Also, once in the waterways, plastic particles also act like sponges for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, herbicides, PAHs and other persistent organic pollutants.

This phenomenon makes plastics far from benign, and scientists have yet to determine the full extent of the dangers posed by their consumption, or the effects higher up the food chain — which is where you are. As noted by Scientific American:13

"The worry now is these tiny toxic pieces of plastic may affect more than just fish — possibly causing cancer in humans, altering our hormones and maybe even killing us. 'In a little more than 60 years, we know we've littered more than 150 million tons of plastic into the oceans,' says Henrik Beha Pedersen, founder and president of the Danish nonprofit Plastic Change.

'Where does it all end up? Is it in the fish? Is it in the birds? Is it on the beaches? Is it on the deep-sea floor? Where has all the plastic gone? Is it in us, us humans?'"

Plastic, along with pollution from industrial waste and the agriculture and aquaculture industries, is also adding to pressure from overfishing, leaving once-rich marine ecosystems like the Bay of Bengal in India largely depleted and struggling with dead zones.

The Trouble With Microbeads

Microplastic is often the result of larger pieces of plastic that become broken down. A separate but related issue is microbeads, which are tiny plastic pellets found in many personal care products.

Being so tiny, you might assume such plastics pose little environmental risk, but the opposite is actually true. Microbeads are so small they get flushed right down the bathroom drain and travel right through wastewater treatment plants, because the filters used are too small to catch them.

Research has only begun to reveal the extent of environmental pollution that microbeads have caused. In a 2012 survey of the Great Lakes, it was found that the area has "some of the highest concentrations of microplastic found in the environment, and microbeads were prevalent."14

Once in the water, microbeads easily absorb endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals like PCBs. Plastics may concentrate such toxins at levels 100,000 to 1 million times higher than the levels found in seawater.15 The beads, which resemble fish eggs, are then eaten by many forms of marine life, including plankton, fish, seabirds and whales. Not surprisingly, it's also known that microplastics are taken up by mussels.16 According to the New York State Attorney General report:17

"Microplastic concentrations in aquatic environments are increasing rapidly. This accumulation of microplastic is of particular concern because microplastic has the potential to be ingested by a much wider range of organisms than large debris, making it and the chemicals it carries bioavailable throughout the food chain.

… Wildlife ingestion of plastic also presents the potential for toxicity to both the ingesting species and other species higher in the food chain.

Harmful chemicals transferred to wildlife from ingested plastic include chemicals added to plastic during manufacturing, and 'hydrophobic pollutants' that collect on the surface of the plastic once in either salt or fresh water, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)."

Again, the threat doesn't stop with marine wildlife, of course. If you eat seafood that has been ingesting microbeads, you're at risk of a potentially high dose of environmental toxins as well. One 2014 study even suggested that the average European who eats shellfish may consume 11,000 microplastics per year.18

Are Algae Balloons the Solution to Plastic Water Bottles?

Many people believe that recycling is the solution to plastic pollution, but only about 14 percent of plastic products end up being recycled.19 Photographer Jacques de Lannoy, who compiled a photo essay of plastics pollution, told ABC News:20

"The developing world, in particular, has been completely overwhelmed by the challenge of managing plastic waste, especially when the plastic bag of a generation or two ago would have been a banana leaf and the PET bottle a bamboo vessel that would harmlessly degrade back to the soil — not so with plastics."

There are some creative alternatives to plastic in the works, like the Ooho!, which is a bubble-like sphere made from seaweed extract that's being touted as a completely edible water bottle.21 Reusable glass or stainless steel bottles are another option, of course, which you can fill up with filtered water yourself.

Choose Reusable Over Single-Use Products

Ocean Conservancy has called for a collective global response to burb plastics pollution, starting with a plan to reduce plastic waste leakage in the top five plastic-polluting countries. They believe their plan, which includes increasing waste collection rates, closing leakage points and more, could reduce leakage by 65 percent in those five countries and reduce total global leakage by approximately 45 percent by 2025.22

In the U.S., it's also crucial that we rethink our throwaway culture and become more sustainably creative. Ideally, seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Another important point is to choose reusable over single-use, which is possible in most instances. For instance, opting for the following will help you to inch closer to a minimal-waste lifestyle while keeping your share of plastics pollution out of the oceans:

Use reusable shopping bags for groceries

Take your own leftovers container to restaurants

Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water

Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning

Store foods in glass containers or mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags

Avoid disposable utensils and buy foods in bulk when you can

Opt for non-disposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels, and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic

Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags

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