Plastic Passion

One item that has popped up on my news feeds with increasing frequency has been the increasing amount of research on plastic contamination of the oceans.

A couple of recent papers caught my eye, one on pollution of open oceans and another on the accumulation of plastics in arctic sea ice.

High concentrations of floating plastic debris have been reported in remote areas of the ocean, increasing concern about the accumulation of plastic litter on the ocean surface. Since the introduction of plastic materials in the 1950s, the global production of plastic has increased rapidly and will continue in the coming decades. However, the abundance and the distribution of plastic debris in the open ocean are still unknown, despite evidence of affects on organisms ranging from small invertebrates to whales. In this work, we synthetize data collected across the world to provide a global map and a first-order approximation of the magnitude of the plastic pollution in surface waters of the open ocean.

From Plastic debris in the open ocean

An untold amount of plastic pollution finds its way into the ocean every year. No one knows for sure what becomes of all that garbage. Much of it most likely erodes into microplastic, tiny flecks smaller than five millimeters in diameter, which can take up pollutants and are often ingested by marine animals, including fish and crustaceans.

Marine plastic contamination has depressing similarities with the increasing amount of junk in low earth orbit where small particles are moving much faster and can do a lot of damage. There is a consensus that both are serious problems but there is no simple solution to either. Unfortunately we’re not talking about plastic bags here, most of the plastic is degraded into sub micron pieces by sea water and sunlight which is then accidentally taken up by a variety of organisms.
I am involved in a few other marine projects and the regulations about what can be dumped and discharged are tightening every year, which provides an opportunity to provide remediation technologies. As a technology optimist I’d like to think we could find a solution to plastic pollution which, after all has only been created in the past 40 years, but as a realist I’m aware of the fact that until we know how much plastic is in the oceans, what types, what concentrations or even what effect it has on the marine ecosystem (other than providing a home for hitchhiking microbes) any attempt at remediation is hard to conceive of.

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