5 Gyres of Plastic Trash Pollutes the World’s Oceans

marcus5gyres

meriksenIt’s the silver lining of a tragedy when it takes a plane crash and the death of all its passengers to bring attention to an environmental catastrophe unfolding on a different time scale. 5 Gyres Institute has traveled 40,000 miles through all 5 gyres, including the Indian Ocean gyre, to discover each one contains a garbage patch filled with plastic pollution.  

In 2010, we sailed from Perth, Australia to Mauritius, straight through the Indian Ocean gyre, to discover that garbage patch. What we found is the same junk that’s confusing rescue workers looking for remnants of the Malaysian Airlines lost aircraft. Plenty of fishing floats, tangled nets, bottles, crates, buckets, bags and everything else made in plastic. 

One year ago we crossed the Bay of Bengal, a feeder region for the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch. I caught my first sea snake in a net, along with a bendy straw.

Photo credit: 5 Gyres Institute

Photo credit: 5 Gyres Institute

That’s our new reality. What was wild space in the 20th century can now be dubbed “waste space.” Welcome to the Plastisphere.

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22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It)

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It seems nearly impossible to escape plastic in our every day lives, doesn’t it?

And we can’t escape plastic pollution, either.

Drowning-in-plastic

Plastic is literally at my fingertips all day long. Plastic keyboard. Plastic framed computer monitor. Plastic mouse. The amount of plastic I encounter daily doesn’t end there. Chances are, you can relate. Plastic is an epidemic.

But where does all this plastic go? We ship some of it overseas to be recycled. Quite a bit ends up in landfills. And more than you can imagine ends up on the loose as plastic pollution, eventually making its way into our waterways.

Tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of toiletries like facial scrubs and toothpastes have even been found in our Great Lakes—the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world! Giant garbage patches (one twice the size of Texas) can be found floating around in the oceans. And all this plastic pollution is not only a problem for the earth, it’s bad for our health.

Green Diva Meg and I chatted about the plastic in our oceans on the recent Green Divas myEARTH360 Report podcast, which inspired me to uncover more facts about plastic in all of our lives and how it ends up in our precious water. Have a listen:

22 Preposterous Facts about Plastic Pollution.

In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws and soda bottles—are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.
Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.
50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away.
Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times.
We currently recover only five percent of the plastics we produce.
The average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year.
Plastic accounts for around 10 percent of the total waste we generate.
The production of plastic uses around eight percent of the world’s oil production (bioplastics are not a good solution as they require food source crops).
Americans throw away 35 billion plastic water bottles every year (source: Brita)
Plastic in the ocean breaks down into such small segments that pieces of plastic from a one liter bottle could end up on every mile of beach throughout the world.
Annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute.
46 percent of plastics float (EPA 2006) and it can drift for years before eventually concentrating in the ocean gyres.
It takes 500-1,000 years for plastic to degrade.
Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences in the oceans making up about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces. 80 percent of pollution enters the ocean from the land.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California and is the largest ocean garbage site in the world. This floating mass of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life six to one.
Plastic constitutes approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile.
One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans.
44 percent of all seabird species, 22 percent of cetaceans, all sea turtle species and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies.
In samples collected in Lake Erie, 85 percent of the plastic particles were smaller than two-tenths of an inch, and much of that was microscopic. Researchers found 1,500 and 1.7 million of these particles per square mile.
Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).
Plastic chemicals can be absorbed by the body—93 percent of Americans age six or older test positive for BPA (a plastic chemical).
Some of these compounds found in plastic have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock


Is it possible to go plastic-free?

Listen to the Green Divas feature interview with Beth Terry, author of Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can, Too.

Ten Ways To “Rise Above Plastic.”

Choose to reuse when it comes to shopping bags and bottled water. Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable bottles are available locally at great prices.
Refuse single-serving packaging, excess packaging, straws and other “disposable” plastics. Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at bbq’s, potlucks or take-out restaurants.
Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos.
Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them, which is a great way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups.
Go digital!  No need for plastic cds, dvds and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online.
Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on.
Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
Volunteer at a beach cleanup. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently.
Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to reduce plastic in our lives and the nasty impacts of plastic pollution.

Watch Rise Above Plastics—Plastics Kill from Surfrider Foundation:

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Does Your Facial Scrub Harm Marine Life?

microbeads

Microplastics ingested by marine worms are transferring toxic chemicals into their systems, having destructive consequences for ocean biodiversity, a new study has found.

A study published Dec. 2 in the journal Current Biology is the latest to warn of the ecological hazards of tiny grains of plastic known as microplastics, millions of tons of which pollute streams and oceans.

microplasticeco

Microplastics are suspected to come from several sources. One is plastic beads used in facial scrubs or cosmetics. Microplastics also come from the breakdown of larger plastic materials, such as shopping bags, or the shedding of synthetic fibers from textiles by clothes washing.

The abundance and global distribution of microplastics in the oceans has steadily increased over the last few decades with rising plastic consumption worldwide. The study found that microplastics are threatening lugworms that comprise around 32 percent of the biomass along a shore.

When so-called “eco-engineer” lugworms consume microplastics, they absorb toxic chemicals that disrupt the worms’ biological functions. It becomes difficult for the worms to eat organic matter such as silt, which in turn “changes the whole assemblage of animals that live around it,” the study found.

“We are losing a large volume of plastic and we know it is going into the environment and the assumption being made by policymakers is that this material is nonhazardous, it has got the same ranking as scraps of food,” Mark Browne, an ecologist from the U.S.-based National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, told the BBC.

Though microplastics are the most plentiful type of solid-waste pollution on earth, they are not considered hazardous under U.S. law.

Marine life other than lugworms also consume these microplastics, which absorbs chemical pollutants such as antimicrobials including triclosan and dyes. Pollutants from microplastics were found to accumulate at higher concentrations in the lugworms’ intestines than pollutants from sand.

“For more than 40 years the bit that the scientists and policymakers didn’t have was whether these particles of plastic can actually transfer chemicals into wildlife and damage the health of the organism and its ability to sustain biodiversity,” Browne said. ” That’s what we really nailed with the study.”

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.