An Earth-shaking example of the plastic problem lies in the oceans, literally. Marine plastic pollution has reached epidemic proportions as indicated by the cutting edge, powerful research being carried out by such organizations as the Algalita Marine Research Institute and The 5 Gyres Institute.
The amount of plastic debris in the marine environment is vast and ubiquitous, ranging from the polar regions to the Equator, and seriously affecting wildlife: At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris - most of which is plastic - including seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and fish.
The following excerpt from the recent article "The Plastiphere - The Making of a Plasticized World," by Markus Eriksen, Research Director of The 5 Gyres Institute, describes the current scale and ubiquity of the marine plastic pollution problem:
"Plastic pollution is the dominant type of anthropogenic material found in the oceans. Though other types of materials are found in the marine environment (such as glass floats, bottles, light bulbs and tubes, metal cans and derelict traps, and cut wood), 60 to 80% of marine debris is estimated to be plastic. Through degradation by sunlight, biodegradation, chemical and mechanical degradation, plastics fragments disperse globally, accumulating in massive circular currents called subtropical gyres, where wind and waves slow down toward the centers. Microplastics less than 5 mm to macroplastics of all sizes above have been reported since the early 1970s in the subtropical gyres of the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and outside the gyres in nearshore environments. They have also been found in estuaries, lakes, closed gulfs, bays, and seas." [Emphasis added.]
(Photo credit: 5Gyres.org)
The precise fate of plastic pollution in the oceans is not yet known for certain, but Eriksen and others have plenty of ideas and proof of where some of the estimated 1.8 millions tons of plastic pollution in the subtropical gyres ends up:
- Plastics wash ashore on coastlines and island environments - thus requiring massive clean-up efforts, or simply breaking down further on land.
- Some plastics entangle, smother, or are ingested by marine wildlife, inevitably contributing to numerous wildlife fatalities.