Every day we use “disposable” items, such as take out containers, straws, and water bottles. But, when these items are disposed of, where is it they actually end up? Some get recycled; yet, many of them get dropped on the street and washed down the drain where they ultimately end up in the ocean. For decades, debris such as this has been documented across the world’s oceans.
The way this data is gathered is by towing fine mesh nets through the water by a ship, filtering through thousands of gallons of water at a time. Because of the Coriolis Effect, as ocean waters circulate they create vortexes, known as gyres, and any object floating in these vortexes gets moved toward the center. The same basic principle can be seen when you prepare a drink from powder. When you stir the powder into the water then remove the spoon, you will notice the remaining clumps accumulate in the center as the water swirls in the glass. However, scientists are not finding left over hot chocolate mix. They are finding a much less delicious substance: plastic.
Among the many environmental impacts this can have, perhaps the most immediate problem associated with the debris is that animals are confusing it with their natural food sources. The Laysan albatross is a bird whose life revolves around the sea. They will travel far to preferred feeding locations; however, during breeding season, the birds’ feeding ranges are restricted locally around their nesting site. As birds become concentrated in an area, food becomes harder to find. In this situation, a sliver of floating plastic can very easily be mistaken for a small fish swimming near the surface. This plastic then remains in their digestive system and accumulates. The plastic provides no nutrients, is unable to be broken down, and will ultimately lead to the bird’s death.
Photograph by Chris Jordan of a Laysan albatross. To see more of Jordan’s documentation, visit http://inhabitat.com/chris-jordan-documents-the-devestating-impact-of-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch-on-wildlife/
This tendency of marine life to consume plastic is becoming more prevalent as the amount of plastic is becoming increasingly concentrated. A recent study found there to be roughly 30% by weight more plastic than plankton in their particular research site. It is important to note that there are many distribution factors that must be taken into account; however, when you think about how many trillions of plankton there are in our oceans, that is still a substantial amount of plastic.
So what can you do to help? It’s simple: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reduce your amount of waste, chose reusable products over disposable ones, and recycle your disposable products if you must use them. Then, and most importantly, spread the word.
-By Kristina Smolenski
(2012). FAQ: plastic debris in the ocean. Retrieved from http://www.sea.edu/plastics/frequently_asked_questions
(2014). Laysan Albatross. Retrieved from http://birds.audubon.org/species/layalb
Goldstein, M. C., Titmus, A. J., Ford, M. (2013). Scales of spatial heterogeneity of plastic marine debris in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. PLOS: One, 8(11). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080020
Young, L. C., Vanderlip, C., Duffy, D. C., Afanasyev, V., Shaffer, S. A. (2009). Bringing home the trash: do colony-based differences in foraging distribution lead to increased plastic ingestion of Laysan albatrosses? PLOS: One, 4(10). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007623