Plastic makes up about 90% of the trash found in the ocean, and thanks to Charles Moore, a sailor and environmentalist, we now know that there is quite a lot of trash in our oceans. It is found particularly in and near the North Pacific gyre, which comprises most of the northern Pacific Ocean and is roughly the size of Texas.
It is a swirling vortex that has an exceptionally high concentration of plastic particles floating beneath it’s surface, which Mr. Moore discovered during a sailing expedition in the late 90’s. It formed partially from the dumping of garbage directly into the sea, but mostly from trash on land making it’s way back to the water. Some of the objects found have been determined to be over 50 years old.
Since the plastic manufactured today is so durable, it disintegrates very slowly, and may never fully biodegrade. Instead it photodegrades, which means that it breaks down into small pieces while never really going away.
These particles are small enough for many aquatic species to ingest, which is how the toxic trash we toss enters our food chain. The floating particles resemble zooplankton, which are ingested by jellyfish and other animals. Then bigger animals eat the smaller animals that ate the plastics, and eventually the plastic particles end up in humans. According to Alternet.org, “Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.” which causes about a million birds to die each year. Plastic particles ingested by one group of animals have the potential to affect every animal that feeds on them exponentially.
Just as mercury quickly spreads from small fish into larger, and then to birds of prey, plastic sludge is passed up the chain. This bioaccumulation of toxins eventually reaches human beings. Besides the unknown effects of eating the plastics alone, they have been shown to act as magnets for other toxins. Plastic polymers attract DDT, PCB’s and insoluble oils in the sea, which are concentrated in the plastics. Some of the toxins clinging to the plastic are mistaken as estradiol (an estrogenic hormone) in animals’ receptors.
Disruption of hormone balance can lead to unpredictable changes in animal populations. Balancing on top of the food web, human beings everywhere feel the full effect of shifting populations. Possibly more frightening than dwindling wildlife populations is wondering how this toxic accumulation will affect the people on earth in the long term. Next time you dispose of a plastic bottle, it may come back to haunt you. End the toxic cycle: stop buying and throwing away plastics.