Shiny Science

Lillian Steenblik Hwang – Blog & Journalism Portfolio

Plastic pollution – scale is important


from Wikimedia Commons

I think my first act of advocacy was as an elementary school student.

I remember writing to Coca-Cola and asked that they stop using plastic rings to hold the six-pack of soda cans together, or at least develop a new model that would break apart more easily so marine animals wouldn’t get caught in them.

About a month after sending the letter I got a canned (pun intended) response from them explaining how they were aware of the danger presented by plastic rings, and their solution was encouraging consumers to cut the rings up before throwing them away.

They also sent me a bunch of Coca-Cola stickers. I was rather disappointed by that response.

The “Sustainable Seas, Sustainable Me” lecture by Anna Cummins, of 5 Gyres (which I summarized briefly here), helped me realize that although I was aware that marine plastic pollution was an issue I didn’t understand the scale of it, and wasn’t aware of the some of the specific dangers posed by plastics.

  • I wasn’t aware of how much plastic had made its way into ocean waters.
  • I wasn’t aware that a lot of the plastics are micro-plastics, or the dangers that presented.

Slide from "Sustainable Seas, Sustainable Me" illustrating pollutant buildup on plastic particles in the ocean over time

Plastic in the oceans

Cummins explained that:
“Plastic particles can act like a sponge for pollutants in the ocean, like PCBS, pesticides (DDT), and PAHs . these chemicals don’t mix with water, they are hydrophobic and lipophilic. One single particle of plastic can have up to a million times higher concentration of these chemicals than the water around it”

A million times. That’s kind of a lot.


Cummins said, “Plastic is not biodegradable, but it is photo-degradable. Sunlight will make it brittle…wave action will churn it and so it breaks down into smaller particles that are devastating for marine wildlife.”
Basically, any plastic that gets into the ocean (estimated at over 100 million tons in the North Pacific gyre alone, by Charles Moore) remains in the ocean for an indeterminable amount of time, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces.

Slide from "Sustainable Seas, Sustainable Me" - ocean plastics

According to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, in the North Pacific gyre, plastic outweighs surface plankton by 6:1. Plastic particles get so small that they are indistinguishable from plankton, as far as the animals who dine on plankton are concerned. Jellyfish, for example, end up eating these tiny plastic particles. This means that plastic gets into the food chain, carrying the toxins it has soaked up with it. These pollutants bio-accumulate up the food chain, into animals that humans eat.
However, it’s not just the smaller marine animals that are confused about the plastics they are ingesting instead of food. Larger animals like albatross, fish, and sea turtles ingest plastics as well.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports  reports ” Scientists estimate that around the world, up to one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating plastic.”
If you search the Internet for any of these topics it’s clear that this is not a problem people are suddenly aware of. It’s been researched for a while now, blogged about, and had some media presence.
Which is why I find it even more shocking that I was unaware of it. This is the sort of thing I care about and am interested in. How did I not know about this?
Is there any way to really measure how much plastic is in the ocean? Not all of it floats. The ocean is huge, and deep, very deep in some places.
If we were able to drastically reduce the amount of plastic going into the oceans now, how long would it take for that to have an impact?

Slide from "Sustainable Seas, Sustainable Me" Can you tell which are plankton and which are plastic?

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