Invasion of the biosphere by synthetic polymers: What our current knowledge may mean for our future

Author: Captain Charles J. Moore

In 1974, a member of the Council of the British Plastics Federation and a fellow of the Plastics Institute, stated that “Plastics litter is a very small proportion of all litter and causes no harm to the environment except as an eyesore”(Derraik, 2002). It has taken less than fifty years for that opinion to be completely discredited, indeed, that opinion was already in doubt the moment it was stated. Nevertheless, it was the strong denial by the plastic industry that plastics could cause harm that delayed the study of plastic’s environmental effects for decades. Not until Moore et al. (2001) found six times as much plastic as zooplankton by weight in the surface waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), did plastic environmental pollution begin to receive increasing attention by scientists, policy makers, regulators, and the media, who began referring to the area as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a term coined by an oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer (Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano, 2009). Today it is widely acknowledged that vagrant plastic waste is polluting oceans, rivers, soil, food, the water we consume, and even the air we breathe. The invasion of this synthetic waste into organisms is facilitated by the fact that with surface ablation and disintegration mechanisms over time, micro- and nano- sized synthetic polymers are created that can be readily assimilated into living organisms. Recent studies reveal that these micro- and nano- scale polymers, which sorb and desorb pollutants, can pass through the intestinal wall and from the lungs to the circulatory system and in contact with human cells produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are implicated in many pathologies (Schirinzi et al., 2017). As primarily a marine scientist, I focus on the threats to marine ecosystems, but the topic of plastic pollution has grown to global proportions affecting not only the biosphere, but geological formations as well. Here I present a summary of the work done to date to understand our situation and discuss briefly the future of plastic pollution.

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Is There More Plastic Than Fish In The Sea?

Ann R. Thryft, Senior Technical Editor, Design News, 4/22/2016

The amount of plastic in the ocean just keeps growing. If things don’t change, by 2025 the oceans will contain one metric ton of plastic for every three metric tons of fish. By 2050 plastic will outweigh fish entirely. That’s the conclusion of a report by two major foundations and research firm McKinsey & Company. Several proposals have been made for collecting all that plastic and reusing it, as well as for reducing the flow.

As we’ve told you, the damage caused by these materials to the world’s oceans and wildlife continues, despite the fact that plastics manufacturers and processors have worked for several years to prevent or clean up plastic marine litter. In fact, plastic has become so integrated with naturally occurring materials in the oceans that it’s formed a new geological substance. Found first on Hawaiian beaches, “plastiglomerate” combines plastic particles with rock fragments and beach sediment.

That’s not really surprising, considering that at least 8 million metric tons (8,818,490 US tons) of plastic enter the oceans each year, according to the new study. That rate is expected to double by 2030, and double again by 2050. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics was produced by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with analytical support from McKinsey & Company. According to its executive summary, the study brings a global perspective to the problem of plastic waste, focusing on plastic packaging. It provides “a new way of thinking about plastics as an effective global material flow, aligned with the principles of the circular economy.” The study’s vision of a global economy sees plastics as never becoming waste but being recaptured via recycling and reuse. It outlines specific, concrete steps that can be taken to achieve the systemic shift that’s needed from the more linear material flows of today’s plastic packaging economy.

In the current linear flow, which allows so much waste, after a short cycle of first use 95% of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy: only 14% is recycled and 32% of plastic packaging material completely escapes collection systems. The new approach outlined in the study creates “effective after-use pathways for plastics; drastically reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems, in particular oceans; and decoupling plastics from fossil feedstocks.” The shift will require all stakeholders to work together: plastic packaging producers, plastics manufacturers, consumer goods companies, and businesses involved in collecting, sorting, and reprocessing, as well as cities, policymakers, and NGOs (non-government organizations). Strategies include redesigning products for reuse and to make recycling easier; using more plastics that can be composted on an industrial scale; increasing the amount of renewable virgin feedstock; and phasing out plastics that are difficult to recycle, such as PVC and some forms of polystyrene.

Echoing many of these suggestions, a report last fall by the Ocean Conservancy, produced with the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, contains more localized specific solutions for eliminating plastic waste in the ocean, beginning with five priority countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. It calls for a coordinated effort on the part of industry, government, and NGOs, stating that, since at least 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources, the solutions must start on land. The report proposes to cut leakage by 45% in the next 10 years, and to eradicate it by 2035. It calls for accelerating waste collection, plugging post-collection leakage, and developing commercially viable treatment options. Longer-term solutions include new recovery and treatment technologies, and new materials and product designs that make reuse or recycling easier to do.

Probably the most ambitious cleanup project so far is proposed by The Ocean Cleanup. The company was founded by Boyan Slat at age 19 when he quit aerospace engineering studies to pursue his idea with a large team of adult specialists and extraordinarily successful crowdfunding. The group proposes a gigantic array to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The passive system for collecting ocean plastic is formed of floating barriers fixed to the sea floor by mooring stations to catch passing plastic debris as it moves on ocean currents. The 100 kilometer-long array’s vast arms form a V shape that captures and concentrates plastic debris, making it possible to extract it mechanically for recycling or for use as a fuel feedstock. The team has already done a proof-of-concept test, a feasibility study, and the Mega Expedition to determine how much plastic is floating in the Patch. In this year’s second quarter, it will deploy a 100 meter-long barrier segment in the North Sea to test the barrier’s design in open waters for the first time. Full deployment of the large-scale system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is scheduled for 2020.

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EPA Aquatic Trash Prevention Compendium

Aquatic Trash Prevention Great Practices Compendium – The Mid-Atlantic States

Ocean Dumping Management

The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA), also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, regulates the transportation and dumping of any material into ocean waters. The MPRSA prohibits or restricts ocean dumping that would adversely affect human health, welfare, amenities, the marine environment, ecological systems or economic potentialities. Generally, ocean dumping cannot occur unless a permit is issued under the MPRSA. EPA’s Ocean Dumping Management Program protects human health and the marine environment, and prevents adverse impacts to other uses of the sea, such as navigation and fishing, from pollution caused by ocean dumping.

5 Gyers

S.E.A. Change – Science. Education. Activism.

We have led the effort to research aquatic plastic pollution and to find solutions for regaining a plastic-free ocean. Our mission is to empower people to become leaders in combating the global health crisis of plastic pollution.

Ocean Conservancy

We face many complex challenges when it comes to a clean and healthy ocean, but one problem is simple to understand: Trash.

People know that trash in the water:

  • compromises the health of humans, wildlife and the livelihoods that depend on a healthy ocean;
  • threatens tourism and recreation, and the critical dollars they add to our local economies;
  • complicates shipping and transportation by causing navigation hazards; and
  • generates steep bills for retrieval and removal.

Unfortunately, what we see dirtying beaches and floating on the ocean’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg. Much more lies unseen beneath the surface and far away on the open water — but that doesn’t make it any less important.

Report: Ocean Trash Impacts

Our study on the deadliest ocean trash.

Stemming the Tide

Our 2015 report on a way forward to eliminate ocean plastic.

2015 Ocean Trash Index

Download the data collected during the 2014 International Coastal Cleanup.

New Study on Ocean Trash

A new study provides first estimate of how much plastic flows into the ocean.

International Coastal Cleanup

Volunteers collected more than 16 million pounds of trash during Ocean Conservancy’s 2015 International Coastal Cleanup. Here’s what they found.

Talking Trash & Taking Action

A marine debris education partnership between Ocean Conservancy and the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

The Plastic Debris Project

Eliminating Land-based Discharges Of Marine Debris In California: A Plan of Action from The Plastic Debris Project

The Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea Project seeks to minimize the land-based discharges of marine debris. Just like ocean-based marine debris, land-based discharges of human-made debris are comprised mostly of plastics.

The threat and impacts of marine debris have long been ignored. Perhaps it is the perceived vastness of ocean and lack of visibility of marine debris to most people that has allowed society to dismiss the problem as a serious threat. However, recent research demonstrates that quantities and impacts of marine debris are significant and increasing. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s investigation of plastic in the North Pacific Central Gyre of the Pacific Ocean showed that the mass of plastic pieces was six times greater than zooplankton floating on the water’s surface. This study is one of many that demonstrate that our oceans have become the virtual garbage can for the developed and developing world.(1)

Scripps Institution of Oceanography