Plastic Seas

The problem of plastic waste in the world’s oceans may be much worse than previously thought—and the picture already looked grim. For years, environmental organizations have sounded the alarm about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a mass of plastic particles stretching twice the size of Texas. The organization Five Gyres recognizes that each ocean gyre comes with its own collection of plastic and the latest research in the journal Geophysical Research Letters finds that there’s much more plastic debris in the ocean than is easily recognized because much of it is distributed vertically due to wind mixing ocean layers. That report finds that taking surface measurements will not capture the extent of the problem—geophysical measurements are needed.

One researched Giora Proskurowski of the University of Washington described for California Watch (funded by the Center for Investigative Reporting) how he noticed while out at sea that when the waves died down, particles rose to the surface. He began taking measurements of plastic debris from the North Atlantic at different depths down to 100 feet. “Almost every tow we did contained plastic, regardless of the depth,” he told California Watch.

The research led to a modeling system that will allow others to match wind readings with surface plastic findings to determine the extent of plastic pollution below. In other words, wind is a critical factor in assessing the extent of plastic pollution and must be taken into account.

And all the plastic trash in the oceans poses numerous environmental and human health threats. Besides strangling and choking marine life, plastic debris also breaks down fairly rapidly in sea water (within a year of hitting the water), releasing a host of harmful chemicals such a byproducts of polystyrene (used in plasticware and Styrofoam)—a suspected carcinogen—and the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A. Fish ingesting these chemicals then pose threats to people who eat them, as we inadvertently eat the chemicals these fish have accumulated. An article in National Geographic noted that 267 marine species are affected by plastic garbage.