By Claire Le Guern
Last updated in March 2018.

INTRODUCTION

The world population is living, working, vacationing, increasingly conglomerating along the coasts, and standing on the front row of the greatest, most unprecedented, plastic waste tide ever faced.

Washed out on our coasts in obvious and clearly visible form, the plastic pollution spectacle blatantly unveiling on our beaches is only the prelude of the greater story that unfolded further away in the world’s oceans, yet mostly originating from where we stand: the land.

For more than 50 years, global production and consumption of plastics have continued to rise. An estimated 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012, and confirming and upward trend over the past years.(See: Worldwatch Institute – January 2015). In 2008, our global plastic consumption worldwide has been estimated at 260 million tons, and, according to a 2012 report by Global Industry Analysts, plastic consumption is to reach 297.5 million tons by the end of 2015.

Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong, and relatively inexpensive. Those are the attractive qualities that lead us, around the world, to such a voracious appetite and over-consumption of plastic goods. However, durable and very slow to degrade, plastic materials that are used in the production of so many products all, ultimately, become waste with staying power. Our tremendous attraction to plastic, coupled with an undeniable behavioral propensity of increasingly over-consuming, discarding, littering and thus polluting, has become a combination of lethal nature.

Although inhabited and remote, South Sentinel island is covered with plastic! Plastic pollution and marine debris, South Sentinel Island, Bay of Bengal. Photo source: © SAF — Coastal Care

A simple walk on any beach, anywhere, and the plastic waste spectacle is present. All over the world the statistics are ever growing, staggeringly. Tons of plastic debris (which by definition are waste that can vary in size from large containers, fishing nets to microscopic plastic pellets or even particles) is discarded every year, everywhere, polluting lands, rivers, coasts, beaches, and oceans.

Published in the journal Science in February 2015, a study conducted by a scientific working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), quantified the input of plastic waste from land into the ocean. The results: every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans. It’s equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. In 2025, the annual input is estimated to be about twice greater, or 10 bags full of plastic per foot of coastline. So the cumulative input for 2025 would be nearly 20 times the 8 million metric tons estimate – 100 bags of plastic per foot of coastline in the world!

Lying halfway between Asia and North America, north of the Hawaiian archipelago, and surrounded by water for thousands of miles on all sides, the Midway Atoll is about as remote as a place can get. However, Midways’ isolation has not spared it from the great plastic tide either, receiving massive quantities of plastic debris, shot out from the North Pacific circular motion of currents (gyre). Midways’ beaches, covered with large debris and millions of plastic particles in place of the sand, are suffocating, envenomed by the slow plastic poison continuously washing ashore.

Then, on shore, the spectacle becomes even more poignant, as thousands of bird corpses rest on these beaches, piles of colorful plastic remaining where there stomachs had been. In some cases, the skeleton had entirely biodegraded; yet the stomach-size plastic piles are still present, intact. Witnesses have watched in horror seabirds choosing plastic pieces, red, pink, brown and blue, because of their similarity to their own food. It is estimated that of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses which inhabit Midway, all of them have plastic in their digestive system; for one third of the chicks, the plastic blockage is deadly, coining Midway Atoll as “albatross graveyards” by five media artists, led by photographer Chris Jordan, who recently filmed and photographed the catastrophic effects of the plastic pollution there.

Albatross, victim of plastic ingestion. Photo: Unknown.

From the whale, sea lions, and birds to the microscopic organisms called zooplankton, plastic has been, and is, greatly affecting marine life on shore and off shore. In a 2006 report, Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, Greenpeace stated that at least 267 different animal species are known to have suffered from entanglement and ingestion of plastic debris. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually, as well as millions of birds and fishes.

The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP), estimated that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution, 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastics debris.

However, most of the littered plastic waste worldwide ultimately ends up at sea. Swirled by currents, plastic litter accumulates over time at the center of major ocean vortices forming “garbage patches”, i.e. larges masses of ever-accumulating floating debris fields across the seas. The most well known of these “garbage patches” is the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered and brought to media and public attention in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore. Yet some others large garbage patches are highly expected to be discovered elsewhere, as we’ll see further.

The plastic waste tide we are faced with is not only obvious for us to clearly see washed up on shore or bobbing at sea. Most disconcertingly, the overwhelming amount and mass of marine plastic debris is beyond visual, made of microscopic range fragmented plastic debris that cannot be just scooped out of the ocean.

Slow, silent, omnipresent, ever increasing, more toxic than previously thought, the plastic pollution’s reality bears sobering consequences, as recently unveiled by the report of Japanese chemist Katsuhiko Saido at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in August 2009 and the findings from the Project Kaisei and Scripps (Seaplex) scientific cruise-expeditions collecting seawater samples from the Great Garbage Patch. Both, the reports and expeditions uncovered new evidence of how vast and “surprisingly” (as it was termed at the ACS meeting) toxic the plastic presence in the marine environment is.

Extremely littered beach in northern Norway. Photo source©© Bo Eide

Environmentalists have long denounced plastic as a long-lasting pollutant that does not fully break down, in other terms, not biodegradable. In 2004, a study lead by Dr Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth, UK, reported finding great amount of plastic particles on beaches and waters in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa and Antarctica. They reported that small plastic pellets called “mermaids tears”, which are the result of industry and domestic plastic waste, have indeed spread across the world’s seas. Some plastic pellets had fragmented to particles thinner than the diameter of a human hair. But while some cannot be seen, those pieces are still there and are still plastic. They are not absorbed into the natural system, they just float around within it, and ultimately are ingested by marine animals and zooplankton (Plankton that consists of tiny animals, such as rotifers, copepods, and krill, larger animals eggs and larvae’s and of microorganisms once classified as animals, such as dinoflagellates and other protozoans.). This plastic micro-pollution, with its inherent toxicity and consequences on the food chain, had yet to be studied…

Dr Saido’s study was the first one to look at what actually happens over the years to these tons of plastic waste floating in the world’s oceans. The study presents an alarming fact: these tons of plastic waste reputed to be virtually indestructible, do decompose with surprising speed, at much lower temperature than previously thought possible, and release toxic substances into the seawater, namely bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer. These chemicals are considered toxic and can be metabolized subsequent to ingestion, leading Dr Saido to state “…plastics in the ocean will certainly give rise to new sources of global contaminations that will persist long into the future”.

This past August a different study, from a group of oceanography students from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), UCSD, accompanied by the international organization Project Kaisei’s team, embarked on two vessels, New Horizon and Kaisei, through the North Pacific Ocean to sample plastic debris and garbage. SIO director Tony Haymet described the trip as “ …a forage into the great plastic garbage patch in the north.” To summarize the scientific data collected on the ship, Miriam Goldstein, chief scientist on New Horizon, stated: “We did find debris… coming up in our nets in over 100 consecutive net tows over a distance of 1,700 miles… It is pretty shocking.” She said, “[There is] not a big island, not a garbage dump

can really see easily.” She described it more as a place where large debris floats by a ship only occasionally, but a lot of tiny pieces of plastic exist below the surface of the water. “Ocean pretty much looks like ocean,” she said. “The plastic fragments are mostly less than a quarter inch long and are below the surface. It took at first a magnifying-glass to see the true extent of plastic damage in the North Pacific.”

The overwhelmingly largest unquantifiable plastic mass is just made of confetti-like fragmented pieces of plastic.

In a press conference in September 2009, the director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), Maziar Movassaghi, referring to Project Kaisei’s findings, held a small glass bottle filled with seawater sampled at the Great North Garbage Patch. Inside was murky seawater with hundreds of fragmented plastics pieces: “That is what we have to stop”.

All sea creatures, from the largest to the microscopic organisms, are, at one point or another, swallowing the seawater soup instilled with toxic chemicals from plastic decomposition. The world population “… (is) eating fish that have eaten other fish, which have eaten toxin-saturated plastics. In essence, humans are eating their own waste.” (Dixit Renee Brown, WiredPress).

Photo: Manan Vastsyayana

The scientists from Project Kaisei and Scripps hope their data gives clues as to the density and extent of these debris, especially since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch might have company in the Southern Hemisphere, where scientists say the gyre is four times bigger.” We’re afraid at what we’re going to find in the South Gyre, but we’ve got to go there,” said Tony Haymet.

The “Silent World” is shedding mermaid tears. A plastic-poison has undeniably been instilled by us, prompting an unwilling and illegitimate confrontation of two titans: one synthetic (plastic), the other oceanic. The crisis is of massive proportion. An unprecedented plastic tide has occurred, pervasively affecting the world’s oceans, beaches, coasts, seafloor, animals and ultimately, us.