I: THE GREAT PLASTIC TIDE: MAGNITUDE, SCOPE, EXTENT

A full understanding of the magnitude and scope of this plastic pollution starts with clear definitions as to what and why it is happening. Thus, we will define the notions of marine debris, gyres, and oceanic garbage patches, or giant floating marine debris field, as first discovered in the North Pacific by Captain Charles Moore’s, since referred to as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GGP).

MARINE DEBRIS AND PLASTIC

Krichim, Boat in plastic, April 25, 2009. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff

Marine Debris

The term marine debris has been used for at least 25 years to refer to man-made materials that have been discarded or lost into the ocean. The earliest references come from the 1984 Workshop on the Impacts and Fate of Marine Debris (Shomura and Yoshida 1985). This workshop came out of a 1982 request from the Marine Mammal Commission to the National Marine Fisheries Service to examine the impacts of marine debris. At that time, the focus of research was primarily on derelict fishing gear. Keep in mind that this was prior to the implementation of both the high-seas driftnet ban and MARPOL Annex V.

Other terms used prior to 1984 include the following: man-made debris (Feder et all 1978), synthetic debris (Balazs 1979), plastic litter (Merrell 1980), floating plastic debris (Morris 1980), man-made objects (Shaughnessy 1980, Venrick et al 1973), and debris (Scordino and Fisher 1983).

It would appear that the term debris was being used in these articles by academics as something discarded: litter.

Mouth of the Los Angeles River, Long Beach, California. Photo source: ©© Bill McDonald, Algalita Foundation / Heal The Bay

The term marine debris encompasses more than plastic, including metals (derelict vessels, dumped vehicles, beverage containers), glass (light bulbs, beverage containers, older fishing floats), and other materials (rubber, textiles, lumber). Plastic certainly makes up the majority of floating litter, but in some areas the debris on the ocean floor may contain sizeable amounts of those other denser types.

Scientists have similarly and more simply defined marine debris as, any manufactured or processed solid waste material that enters the ocean environment from any source (Coe & Rogers, 1997). Marine debris is definitely characterized as human-created waste that has deliberately or accidentally become afloat. They tend to accumulate at the centre of gyres and on coastlines, frequently washing aground where it is known as beach litter.

The US Congress passed a bill in 2006, The Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act, to create a program to address the marine debris pollution. One of the requirements in the bill was for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the U.S. Coast Guard, to promulgate a definition of marine debris for the purposes of the Act. Thus, USCG and NOAA drafted and published a definition of marine debris in September 2009. The definition is this: “Any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.” Marine debris can come in many forms, from a plastic soda bottle to a derelict vessel. Types and components of marine debris include plastics, glass, metal, Styrofoam, rubber, derelict fishing gear, and derelict vessels.

UNEP has defined marine debris, or marine litter, as “any persistent, manufactured, processed, or solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment.” This is an even more global and comprehensive definition, as it does include the marine and correlated coastal impact of the aforementioned litter.

Plastic pollution covering the shore, Morocco.Photo: © SAF — Coastal Care

As we mentioned supra, land-based sources of debris account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution. Such debris is unquestionably one of the world’s most pervasive pollution problems affecting our beaches, coasts, oceans, seafloors, inland waterways and lands. It affects the economies and inhabitants of coastal and waterside communities worldwide. The effect of coastal littering is obviously compounded by vectors, such as rivers and storm drains, discharging litter from inland urban areas. Obviously, ocean current patterns, climate and tides, and proximity to urban centers, industrial and recreational areas, shipping lanes, and commercial fishing grounds influence the types and amount of debris that is found in the open ocean or collected along beaches, coasts and waterways, above and below the water’s edge.

The other 20 percent of this debris is from dumping activities on the water, including vessels (from small power and sailboats to large transport ships carrying people and goods), offshore drilling rigs and platforms, and fishing piers.

Over the past 60 years, organic materials, once the most common form of debris, have yielded to synthetic elements as the most abundant material in solid waste. Marine litter is now 60 to 80 percent plastic, reaching 95 percent in some areas, according to a report by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (created by Charles Moore), published in October 2008 in Environmental Research.

Citarum River, flowing to the Sea, is the main source of houselhold water for Jakarta.(14million people). Photo source: photobucket

Around and around, worldwide, at distant seas, or merely bobbing among the waves before washing up ultimately on shore, a daily and ever too common plastic spectacle is unveiled: bottles, plastic bags, fishnets, clothing, lighters, tires, polystyrene, containers, plastics shoes, just a myriad of man-made items, all sharing a common origin: us.

Yearly data adds to the despondent reality of how extensively the plastic tide is increasingly affecting world’s beaches and coasts. Launched in 1986 by the Ocean Conservancy, the Center for Marine Conservation’s annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) has grown into the world’s largest volunteer effort to collect data on the marine environment. Held the third Saturday of each September, the International Coastal Cleanup engages the public to remove trash and debris from the coasts, beaches, waterways, underwater, and on lands to identify the sources of debris. It is a compelling global snapshot of marine debris collected on one day at thousands of sites all over the world. The 2008, 23rd ICC reported that 104 countries and locations, from Bahrain to Bangladesh, and in 42 US States, from southern California to the rocky coast of Maine, had participated. The overwhelming percentage of debris collected was plastics and smoking paraphernalia. The 2008 report states that plastic litter has increased by 126 percent since ICC first survey in 1994. The top 3 items found in 2008 were cigarettes butts, plastic bags, and food wrappers/containers.

Durable and slow to degrade, plastic materials that are used in the production of so many products, from containers for beverage bottles, packing straps and tarps, and synthetic nylon materials used in fishing line, all become debris with staying power. Plastics debris accumulates because it does not biodegrade as many other substances do; although it will photo degrade on exposure to sunlight and does decompose, more rapidly than previously thought. (We will explain these processes as we study the nature and properties of plastic itself infra.).

In addition, most of these plastic waste items are highly buoyant, allowing them to travel in currents for thousands of miles, endangering marine ecosystems and wildlife along the way. Marine debris is a global transboundary pollution problem.

Icelandic shore. The marine area around Iceland is considered as one of the cleanest of the world. Photo Source: Clean up the Coastline, Veraldarvinir

The instillation of plastic in an oceanic world vests a terrible reality. Because of the properties of plastic as a synthetic material and because of the absence of boundary, vastness, currents and winds at seas, this resilient polluting material is being spread worldwide by an even more powerful vehicle, the seas. It appears then daunting, impossible, a priori, to control, efficiently clean-up, remedy effectively, even sufficiently study the plastic pollution. This unwilling confrontation of titans, one plastic the other oceanic, has become ineluctably a crisis of massive proportion.

Plastic

The paucity of concerted and definitive scientific data/research in this matter is staggering compared to the extent of the problem.
Only in 1997, with Captain Charles Moore’s discovery, was the plastic waste pollution in the ocean widely brought to media light and finally began to receive more serious attention from the public and the scientific world, stepping the way to more exhaustive research about plastic and its consequences and effects when entering marine life.

Of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the Ocean, according to a Greenpeace report (Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, 2006). Seventy percent of the mass eventually sinks, damaging life on the seabed. The rest floats in open seas, often ending up in gyres, circular motion of currents, forming conglomerations of swirling plastic trash called garbage patches, or ultimately ending up washed ashore on someone’s beach.

But the washed up or floating plastic pollution is a lot more than an eyesore or a choking/entanglement hazard for marine animals or birds. Once plastic debris enters the water, it becomes one of the most pervasive problems because of plastic’s inherent properties: buoyancy, durability (slow photo degradation), propensity to absorb waterborne pollutants, its ability to get fragmented in microscopic pieces, and more importantly, its proven possibility to decompose, leaching toxic Bisphenol A (BPA) and other toxins in the seawater.

“Plastics are a contaminant that goes beyond the visual”, says Bill Henry of the Long Marine Laboratory, UCSC.

Seal trapped in plastic pollution. Photo: ©© Tedxgp2

But before we develop further the realities and consequences of the plastic-covered beaches, seafloor and plastic-instilled seawater, it is necessary to present simple facts about plastic itself.