The Pacific isn't the only ocean collecting plastic trash
A swirling 'soup' of tiny pieces of plastic has been found in the Atlantic Ocean, and something similar may be present in other ocean areas as well.
When Sylvia Earle began diving in 1952, the ocean was pristine. These days, things are different.
â€śFor the past 30 years I have never been on a dive anytime, anywhere, from the surface to 2-1/2 miles deep, without seeing a piece of trash,â€ť says the renowned oceanographer and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. â€śThereâ€™s life from the surface to the greatest depths â€“ and thereâ€™s also trash from the surface to the greatest depths.â€ť
Dr. Earleâ€™s experience illustrates the rising tide of plastic accumulating in the worldâ€™s oceans.
And while the Pacific Ocean has garnered much attention for what some call the "Great Pacific Garbage Patchâ€ť â€“ a vast expanse of floating plastic deposited in the middle of the ocean by circulating currents â€“ the problem doesnâ€™t stop there.
New research shows that plastic has collected in a region of the Atlantic as well, held hostage by converging currents, called gyres, to form a swirling â€śplastic soup.â€ť And those fragments of plastic could also be present at the other three large gyres in the worldâ€™s oceans, says Kara Lavender Law, a member of the oceanography faculty at the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Mass., which conducted the study.
Because the plastic has broken down into tiny pieces, it is virtually impossible to recover, meaning that it has essentially become a permanent part of the ecosystem. The full impact of its presence there â€“ what happens if fish and other marine animals eat the plastic, which attracts toxins that could enter the food chain â€“Â is still unclear.
â€śIt's a serious environmental problem from a lot of standpoints,â€ť Dr. Law says. â€śThere are impacts on the ecosystem from seabirds, fish, and turtles, down to microscopic plankton.â€ť
The possible effect on humans is â€śa huge open question,â€ťÂ she adds. â€śIf a marine organism were to ingest a contaminated plastic article, it could move up the food chain. But that is far from proven.â€ť
The data collected by SEA, from 22 years of sailing through the North Atlantic and Caribbean, show a high concentration of plastic fragments centered about 30 degrees north latitude (in the western North Atlantic), says Law. That aligns with the oceanâ€™s circular current pattern.
But donâ€™t call this region the garbage patch of the Atlantic. Law, who has sailed through the plastic accumulation in the Pacific gyre as well, says the term â€śplastic soupâ€ť is more accurate for both areas. â€śThereâ€™s no large patch, no solid mass of material,â€ť she says.
The idea of a garbage â€śpatchâ€ť or â€śislandâ€ť twice the size of Texas, a favorite term in the media for the now-infamous spot in the Pacific, feeds misconceptions, he says. â€śItâ€™s much worse.Â If it were an island, we could go get it. But we canâ€™t,â€ť because itâ€™s a â€śthin soup of plastic fragments.â€ť
The plastic floating in the ocean comes mostly from land. Dumping plastic at sea has been prohibited by an international convention since 1988, but about 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean flows from rivers, is washed out from storm drains or sewage overflows, or is blown out to sea from shore by the wind.
According to the UN Environment Program, the world produces 225 million tons of plastic every year.
Law says that analyses of the density of the plastics picked up in SEAâ€™s research show that much of it potentially comes from consumer items made of polyethylene and polypropylene plastics, which includes plastic shopping bags, milk jugs, detergent bottles, and other items â€ścommon in our everyday lives.â€ť
Those post-consumer products eventually break down into small pieces â€“ most of the fragments caught in SEAâ€™s plankton nets are about the size of a pencil eraser. Fish, birds, and sea mammals can mistake those tiny pieces for food and eat them. Fish and birds caught in regions with high plastic concentrations have been found to have numerous bits of plastic in their stomachs.
One of the puzzling aspects ofÂ SEAâ€™s study is that it does not show an increase in concentration of plastics during the 22 years of sampling.
â€śThatâ€™s one of the main questions weâ€™re trying to answer with the data set,â€ť says Law. â€śI believe the evidence shows there has to be more going into the ocean. The question is, why donâ€™t we see an increase in this region where we collect.â€ť
Itâ€™s possible that the plastics have broken down into such small pieces that they pass through the plankton nets, she says, or that bacteria or organisms growing on the pieces could cause them to sink. And some of the trash could escape to other areas of the ocean on wayward currents.
When it comes to stemming the tide of plastic waste, there is no easy answer. Most experts agree that cleaning up the tiny pieces already swirling in ocean currents thousands of miles from land is impossible. Instead, the focus should be on prevention.
Law says that education is key. It's important to raise awareness of what happens to the plastic that millions of people throw away every day. â€śThereâ€™s a perception that if you put it in a recycle bin, it will end up being recycled, but itâ€™s not clear thatâ€™s always the case."
Perhaps, experts speculate, the real reason that so much plastic ends upÂ at sea is because so much of it is designed to be used once, then tossed.
Dr. Eriksen says ending the throwaway design of plastics is essential to combating ocean pollution.
â€śI'm not against plastic, I'm just against the way we abuse the material,â€ť he says. â€śKnowing the environmental consequences of it, we have to rethink the responsible use of it.â€ť
Erickson also advocates economic incentives for plastic recovery â€“ such as giving plastic products a return value in recycling centers â€“ andÂ â€śextended producer responsibility,â€ť in which manufacturers are responsible for the life cycle of their products. That would force producers to build the cost of recovery or recycling into the cost of the product.