Plastic Waste as one of the Major Contaminants of the Seas Around the World

The seemingly vast and endless resources of the ocean are under threat. Human beings take and take from this great resource and then turn around and make it even less usable due to the pollution we create. There are many different ways in which we contaminate the seas, but one of the problems is the solid wastes that fill the ocean. The majority of this waste is plastic debris that does not fully break down. Since its creation plastic has become increasingly prominent in everyday life and increasingly more detrimental to the ocean. Many of its effects go unnoticed but this issue is not only deadly to the marine life, but is also harmful to us human beings, as well. The ocean is a place I like to call home as I have lived on the coast my entire life. It provides so much: food, beauty, and entertainment. So, to see how quickly its resources are being diminished due to our own ignorance is heartbreaking.

It was thought in the past that the ocean was so expansive that our waste could not even begin to affect it. However, our use of plastic has greatly increased over the decades, in turn increasing the amount of plastic debris in the seas. Most of the tiny plastic particles are not easily noticed, but there are some areas in which this waste accumulation is so large that it is impossible to miss. According to National Geographic there are areas like the Pacific Trash Vortex, in which ocean currents pull broken down plastic and trash into a giant vortex of garbage. This specific trash vortex is estimated to be about the size of Texas. According to Green Peace, among this vortex lies dead mammals and fish that get caught in the trash. There is also another massive “vortex” in the Atlantic Ocean. This is a disgusting example of the magnitude of waste we contaminate the ocean with. About 80% of plastic waste is washed into the water from the land and the remaining amount is dumped by ships. So, a good majority of this problem is due to our carelessness to leave waste where it can be washed into the seas. The ocean is such a beautiful place and has provided me with happiness through my life. I am very passionate about making a change in the way in which we treat it because the amounts of trash polluting it is disgusting.

Much of the damage done to the ocean ecosystems is not as easily noticed. The majority of plastic waste sinks to the seafloor where it there can kill marine life residing there. According to Jose Derraik, there are about two hundred sixty-seven species affected by this debris. When plastic sits at the bottom of the sea it can prevent essential gas exchanges, greatly affecting the functioning of underwater ecosystems. According to Green Peace, not only debris that sinks is harmful to habitats, but also pieces of plastic that float in the water. Floating plastic can act as a surface for organisms to live on and then carry these organisms along with the current. Plants or animals can then end up outside of their typical habitat, allowing for them to invade other habitats. This can cause issues due to competition or disease and mess up the food chain in the ecosystem or wipe out species. The species in the ocean work together in various food chains to create harmony in its ecosystems. Our disturbances to these ecosystems can break this harmony and result in the downfall of the ocean. One of my favorite parts of being near the ocean is seeing the vast amounts of life it supports, yet our ignorance is interfering with the lives of the organisms it contains.

Waste pollution in the ocean can also be an issue by entangling fish or mammals. According to Derraik, large pieces of waste like plastic bags can pose a threat because organisms can get trapped in the bag. An example he used was sea turtles, who often target plastic bags as prey. They then can get tangled in the bag and suffocate. Another type of trash that can cause entanglement of fish or mammals are discarded fishing nets. Derraik also notes that an animal that is especially susceptible to entanglement is the seal because of its playful nature. A curious seal will often stick its head through plastic soda can rings. As the seal grows the ring will get tighter and often strangle the creature or sever arteries in its neck. If it does not kill the animal, these tangled pieces of trash can decrease an animal's ability to catch food or avoid predators, eventually causing its demise in the end. I find myself to be more emotionally affected by the pain of these creatures than any other part of this pollution issue. It may not be logical, but hearing the facts or seeing pictures of animals suffering at our hand is painful.

If one were to look in the stomach of a fish they would find that among its contents would be little pieces of plastic. Our ocean is so filled with plastic, particularly tiny broken down pieces we cannot even sea, which animals are constantly ingesting, either by accident or by mistaking it for food. According to Derraik, the ingestion of such debris can be detrimental to sea life. These pieces of waste can clog intestinal tracts and block secretion of gastric enzymes, eventually leading to a creature's death. Plastic pieces can also keep fat deposits from forming, which in turn can affect an organism's ability to migrate or quickly escape predators. Another side effect to this ingestion is the interference with an animal's ability to reproduce. According to Green Peace, these pieces of plastics have a more sneaky effect. Plastic can act as a "chemical sponge” in which it concentrates dangerous organic pollutants. So, if an animal eats these plastics they are not just suffering the typical effects of the waste, but are also ingesting extremely harmful pollutants. This poses another problem because this pollutants can move up the food chain, eventually reaching us.

Collectively as human beings we need to make more conscious decisions when it comes to one of our most important resources in this world. The ocean is a commons, yet we are not treating it or others who rely on it with respect. We ignorantly pollute this great commodity and at some point we will make everything it contains unusable to everyone. This research has opened my eyes to how bad the waste problem in the ocean really is. Before I knew of the possibility of ingestion of waste by animals and of the more publicized issue, entanglement. However, I did not realize the magnitude at which waste filled the ocean. This vastly beautiful resource has provided so much for me through my life: happiness, tranquility, a sense of community, and food. Now that I understand the extent at which humanity has caused its downfall it makes me even more passionate about trying to make a change in my life. Every small effort makes a difference. Even if we cannot see, there are tiny particles of broken down plastic everywhere in the ocean. No organism is safe from them and we have successfully contaminated our resources. It is already too late to turn back what we have done, but if we as the human race work together we can try to prevent any further damage before our oceans are no longer usable. 

Works Cited

  1. “Solid Waste and Marine Litter,” The Caribbean Environment Programme, accessed March 14, 2014, http://www.cep.unep.org/publications-and-resources/marine-and-coastal-issues-links/solid waste-and-marine-litter.
  2. “The Trash Vortex,” Green Peace International, accessed March 13, 2014, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/pollution/trash-vortex/.
  3. “Marine Pollution,” National Geographic, accessed March 14, 2014, http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/critical issues-marine-pollution/.
  4. Jose G.B Derraik, “The Pollution of the Marine Environment by Plastic Debris: A Review,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 (2002): 842-852, doi: 10.1016/S0025-326X(02)00220-5. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00227-004-1474-8#page-1