Plastic Ocean Debris Spikes in Past 40 Years

In 2009, the University of California’s Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) sailed to the North Pacific Ocean Subtropical Gyre, a thousand miles north of Hawaii. This expedition documented an alarming discovery – that tons of tiny plastic particles were floating across the open ocean, 80% of which derived from land. Since plastic is not biodegradable, it breaks down into very small pieces by wind, waves and sunlight. The SEAPLEX finding has come to be known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and was featured on mainstream media outlets like “Good Morning America” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Despite the attention, however, the ocean plastic problem has only gotten worse.According to a new Scripps Institution of Oceanography analysis published in the May 9, 2012 online issue of the journal Biology Letters, every cubic meter of ocean in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has about 100 times more plastic than it did in the 1970s. The study reports water samples taken 40 years ago that contained little or no plastic are now polluted with billions of tiny pieces of confetti-like trash, or what Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Institute refers to as “plastic soup.”

“Plastic only became widespread in late ’40s and early ’50s, but now everyone uses it and over a 40-year range we’ve seen a dramatic increase in ocean plastic,” said Miriam Goldstein, lead author of the study and chief scientist of SEAPLEX. “Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the ocean so hopefully in the future we can do better.”

While the 100-fold increase in ocean plastic will undoubtedly result in more dead fish and sea turtles who fatally mistake the plastic particles for food, marine invertebrate known as “sea skaters” are ironically believed to be flourishing from the rapid pollution. Traditionally, sea skaters use wood, seashells, seabird feathers, tar lumps or pumice as platforms for laying eggs, but now that plentiful plastic surfaces are additionally available, the insects are laying more eggs. In April, researchers with the Instituto Oceanográfico in Brazil reported that eggs of Halobates micans, a species of sea skater, were found on many plastic bits in the South Atlantic off Brazil. Scripps says entire marine ecosystems will be affected by a sea skater population boom if competition for zooplankton and fish larvae goes up.

“This paper shows a dramatic increase in plastic over a relatively short time period and the effect it’s having on a common North Pacific Gyre invertebrate,” Goldstein noted. “We’re seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch update may spur a rise in political action toward the passing of new plastic bag bans, like the one signed into law in Honolulu this past Thursday. Honolulu’s ban, effective July 1, 2015, will include non-recyclable paper and non-biodegradable plastic bags, with exceptions like newspaper bags for home newspaper delivery and bags provided by pharmacists to contain prescription medications.

“This is really getting people to change their behaviors and that’s one of the most difficult things to do frequently and we hope people are going to understand that,” Carlisle said.