What makes plastic so useful for humans is the same thing that makes it so harmful for wildlife – especially birds.
Plastic, in its many different forms, is virtually indestructible. Not only that, but despite all of it being manufactured on land, over 80% of it ends up in the world’s oceans, according to Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Plastics are washed down rivers and flood drains, blown into the sea from landfills, or jettisoned from cargo ships as they criss-cross the world’s seas.
When these plastic items make their way into the oceans, they become extremely hazardous for sea life and seabirds. Chris Jordan’s photographic work on Midway Atoll in the Pacific illustrates some of the horrors of seabirds swallowing the plastic debris which has been discarded from countries around the Pacific Rim. Chris Jordan notes:
“The nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean”
The North Pacific Gyre is a huge area of ocean northeast of Hawaii where, due to the prevailing tidal currents, a vast area of calm water the size of Texas has become the final resting place for plastic waste from across the Pacific (see video). Further areas, or gyres, exist in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and at least five other seas across the planet.
Although large plastic items such as discarded fishing nets have been a cause of concern for decades, more recent research has highlighted the worrying fact that plastic never really disintegrates: it is only reduced by salt water into tiny nodules – almost invisible to the naked eye. This means that plastics are being eaten by ever smaller sea creatures. Marine Biologist Richard Thompson of the University of Plymouth in England notes that, “When they get as small as powder, even zooplankton will swallow them.”
In recent years, Greenpeace have begun sampling plastic content in the Arctic Ocean in order to establish a baseline for future investigations. Sampling is done by towing a plankton net and a flow meter alongside a ship.
Inevitably, the near-indestructible plastic compounds are finding their way into the human food chain, and will continue to do so. University of Exeter researcher Clare Miller took part in the Arctic research:
“Plastic affects everything that depends on the ocean for survival….Chemical contaminants such as BPA and heavy metals are present in many plastics, leading to biomagnification throughout the food chain”.
The fact that plastics are manufactured from crude oil, and their widespread use in modern societies, makes them a particularly urgent problem to address.
As Clare Miller notes:
“Plastic cannot be easily removed from the ocean, so the only way to reduce it is to prevent plastic reaching the ocean in the first place.”
What changes have you been able to make so far in reducing your own dependence on plastics? Share your thoughts below.