What is Plastic Pollution?

Our oceans are slowly turning into a plastic soup and the effects on ocean life are chilling. Plastic (bags, straws, bottles, balloons), glass or metals, seen and collected during several of our trips, are a major threat for biodiversity and for our oceans. Plastic litter is one of the biggest problems in our oceans. It can entangle marine animals, or they can mistake it for food, from tiny zooplankton to whales.

Plastic is entering every level of the ocean food chain, and even ending up in the seafood in our plates.

As of 2015, only about 9% of plastic has been recycled, 12% has been incinerated (polluting the air with toxic gases) and the remaining 79%, remains in landfills or in the environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, by 2050, the amount of plastic in the sea will outweigh the amount of fish and there will be 12 billion tons of plastic in natural environments. That is the weight of 100 million blue whales, admitting that blue whales weight between 80 and 150 tons.

Vasco Gargalo
It is estimated that “more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans every year” and more than 13,000 plastic objects are in every square kilometer of ocean. 640,000 tonnes of fishing nets are discarded or lost in the sea every year, with devastating impacts on marine life, as they can last 600 years in the ocean. It is estimated that these “ghost nets” capture and kill 136,000 seals, sea lions, turtles and large whales every year.

Nowadays, these estimations are alarming and it is essential to take care of our oceans, which harbor an enormous diversity of species, but also of our planet Earth.

But what is plastic?
Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our ocean and Great Lakes. Plastics are not biodegradable. In addition, plastics contain chemical additives and efficiently adsorb several environmental contaminants, thus representing a potential source of exposure to such compounds after ingestion. Plastic debris break down into smaller pieces called microplastics. These are small plastic pieces, less than five millimeters long, which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life. They can be ingested by marine life, and it is thought that a significant amount sinks to the sea bed. But a lot of it just floats around.

Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrade into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, microbeads, a type of microplastic, are very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the oceans and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life.

The latest research shows that many microplastics are found even in the air we breathe. Because of their tiny size, microplastics can be inhaled and induce a huge variety of diseases, including respiratory, cardiovascular, and even cancer. The effects of microplastics entering the respiratory system are not yet fully analyzed, but research has proven that the threat to human health is at high risk.

In December 2017, the United Nations signed a resolution to stop the flow of plastic waste into the oceans. Its next and perhaps even greater challenge is to persuade Member States to sign a new resolution to prevent the flow of plastic waste into the air.

Article by marine biologist Andreia Vieira
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