Plastic pop bottle on a beach in Costa Rica

Research Digest: Focus on Ocean Plastic

News from the gyre, polar polymers + more on ocean plastic pollution.

Pointing to Polluters

USA After a three-and-a-half-year study, researchers at the University of Georgia determined that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic trash flowed into the world’s oceans in 2010 from 192 coastal countries.

Pointing to Polluters

USA After a three-and-a-half-year study, researchers at the University of Georgia determined that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic trash flowed into the world’s oceans in 2010 from 192 coastal countries. The latest multinational research, led by the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles and published by PLOS ONE in December 2014, estimates more than 5.25 trillion individual pieces of plastic are present in the world’s oceans at all depths in all corners of the globe. The discovery, published February 13 in Science, was the first time scientists were able to attach a volume to the amount of plastic waste entering the world’s waterways. Using “social math” to help wrap her head around the massive quantity, lead researcher Jenna Jambeck calculated that the total input of plastic into the oceans every year is equivalent to finding five retail shopping bags full of plastic trash for every foot of coastline in the world. “When I did that conversion, I was shocked,” Jambeck told A\J. Solutions to waste mismanagement will differ between countries, the study concluded, but all start with reducing litter and boosting recycling and sorting programs.

Read the full story: “Waste Mismanagement Leads to Plastic-Filled Oceans”
Listen to Jambeck on CBC Radio

That’s Not Food!

VIRGINIA It’s not just microplastics that are a hazard to marine organisms. Last August, biologists from the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Centre were called about a young, disoriented female sei whale swimming up a busy industrial tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. After she died, it was discovered that the endangered species had swallowed a shard of a broken DVD case that had lacerated her stomach and prevented her from feeding. Sea turtles and birds are also frequent victims of lethal plastic ingestion. Laysan Albatrosses are reported to consume larger amounts of plastic, more frequently, than any other seabird. Chicks have been found with Styrofoam, beads, fishing line, buttons, disposable cigarette lighters, toys, golf tees, dish-washing gloves and magic markers inside them. 

News From the Gyre

INTERNATIONAL The planet has five major ocean gyres – areas of the open ocean with rotating currents where plastic garbage accumulates. The most well-known of these is the North Pacific gyre, where a famous accumulation of trash the size of Texas has been widely reported since the 1990s. A six-year study of the plastic found in all of the gyres was published in the December 10, 2014 issue of PLOS ONE. The most comprehensive examination of the situation to date, this study reveals that the marine garbage patches cannot be considered as repositories, but rather as shredders and redistributors of trash. Sunlight, oxygen, wave action and grazing fish all break large plastics into tiny fragments, which then leave the gyres for “dangerous interaction with entire ocean ecosystems,” says lead researcher Marcus Eriksen. The tiny microplastics are popping up in ice cores, coastal sediments, zooplankton, bivalves, fish and seabirds. Small particles have a greater surface area than large ones and act like sponges to absorb PCBs, DDT, flame retardants and other persistent organic pollutants in the oceans. “The garbage patches could be a frightfully efficient mechanism for corrupting our food chain with toxic microplastics,” says Eriksen.

Polar Polymers

ARCTIC Researchers were “shocked and saddened” to discover large quantities of microplastics from populated areas in the south stored in frozen sea ice. The study results were published in Earth’s Future (June 2014). Lead author Rachel Obbard reports that she saw “a lot of small threads, some solid chunks in oranges and reds and a bunch of small blue nodules.” She accidentally discovered the plastic while studying microscopic algae living under the ice. Until then, she had “consider[ed] the Arctic to be a pristine and remote area.” The investigation revealed that Arctic sea ice contains concentrations of the pollutant several orders of magnitude greater than what has previously been found in highly contaminated areas such as the North Pacific gyre. The impact of increased ice melting due to climate change, and the resulting release of this contamination into the world’s oceans, is unknown.

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.

Janet Kimantas is associate editor at A\J with degrees in studio art and environmental studies. She is currently pursuing an MES at UWaterloo. She splits her spare time between walking in the forest and painting Renaissance-inspired portraits of birds.