Gallery D

It's Everywhere

Page 3
Page 2

The Plastic Problem In World Oceans

By James Donahue

Plastic has been around since about the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It was first produced from plant cellulose and used to make simple household products like combs, hair brushes, mirror handles and perhaps some toys.

It was during World War II, when raw materials for just about everything were being used for the war effort, that things like nylon, rayon and harder plastics made from hydrocarbon molecules derived from the refining of oil started getting used for more and more things, from women’s stockings to automobile tires, toys and telephones.

I remember when I was a young boy trying to make some extra money going door to door and selling a new type of nylon comb that was guaranteed to last a lifetime and never break. I sold a few, never made any money at it, but gained a collection of combs that I used for years. The promotion was right. The combs never broke. They just got lost and were eventually replaced by plastic ones.

Today, as raw materials around the world are now being used up and getting costly, more and more things are being made of plastic. Even our cars are partially made of plastic. We have plastic that is so tough that it is used to make guns, machines, tool parts and aircraft. Plastic is used to make fabric used in clothing and carpeting. It is in wallpaper, the building materials in our houses, the framework of our electronic devices and even the shoes on our feet.

Plastic also is being used to make throw-away hospital equipment, dishes, cups and eating utensils, store bags and packaging material . . . all of which gets thrown away into the trash every week. In our house alone we put at least one large bag filled with mostly wrapping paper and plastics, old magazines, junk mail and empty plastic bottles once used for juice or drinking water. Some towns now try to recycle the plastics, glass and cardboards, but most of this stuff ends up in landfills.
Ships at sea have been tossing trash like this overboard for many years. It was believed that the oceans of the world were so large that a bag of trash would eventually be lost forever.

Unfortunately, garbage scows from coastal cities have been doing the same thing.

The problem with plastic, at least until recently, is that it does not break down like other natural materials. It breaks into minute pieces but remains in its plastic state for thousands of years. And this has created a massive ecological problem that nobody expected to happen when it all began.

The world’s oceans have become polluted, mostly from plastic debris. Researchers at the University of Cadiz, Spain, recently published the results of an alarming study that found microplastic particles in 88 percent of samples taken from ocean surfaces all over the world.

This stuff, caused by what the researchers said was “aggressive consumption and subsequent disposal of plastics since the 1950s” is showing up in even remote areas like the arctic regions and the open ocean.

New types of plastic have been invented that disintegrate naturally, but this material is only recently been used, and mostly for items that end up in landfills. The big problem is still out there, floating in sometimes large globs of trash on the open waters of the world. Places like this have been dubbed “ocean garbage patches” by some writers.

How is this affecting us? Consider that sea life is consuming these tiny plastic particles. If it doesn’t kill the sea creatures, it certainly gets in their bodies. When we eat fish from the sea, we also are consuming minutes plastic particles. No one knows what that is doing to the health of us all.

The same research team from the University of Cadiz has been studying this problem for a few years. The team also is reporting a strange unexplained phenomenon that is alarming some scientists. It seems that the volume of plastic, even though it is presently large, also is starting to disappear.

Because plastic doesn’t disintegrate naturally, the question is….where is it going? Theories range from a continued breakdown until the pieces are no longer detectable, to a possible sinking of the plastic to the bottom of the oceans, where it is resting indefinitely on the ocean bottom. Some think the tiny microchips may even be getting mixed with beach sands during storms.

So what will all that plastic do to our environment over the years? No one knows.

The findings of the Cadiz team were published in the June edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences