Unfortunately the sea does get treated like a dustbin by many people and even companies. Litter left on beaches or thrown out at sea all contribute to many plastic pollution problems. Here are a few ways in which our litter affects marine wildlife -
Plastic diet - Marine birds, turtles and fish are among the most affected by their plastic diets. But it’s not just a problem for small creatures. Sperm whales are said to eat over 100 millions tonnes of seafood a year, but increasingly this diet is including our waste too. The building up of rubbish in animals’ bellies means there is less space in their stomachs to get the nutrients they need. There are also terrible affects when toxic metals and chemicals are released as a result of the debris being broken down in the belly which can lead to poisoning. Sometimes debris with sharp edges cause damage to animals throats and insides, or large pieces may become lodged in their digestion tracts.
Sometimes plastic debris is eaten by accident but often these plastics can also be mistaken for food as they look very similar to other organisms, that float about just the same.
Little things that seem harmless to us such as bottle tops and plastic bags can cause havoc in the environment - whether it is in the countryside or the sea. But it’s not just by eating this rubbish that wildlife can become harmed - there are also thousands of deaths every year caused by animals becoming entangled and stuck in rubbish. This is a great reason never to drop litter and to recycle as much rubbish as you can.
Microplastics - Microplastics are microscopic particles of plastic and you may be surprised to find that most of these come from our washing machines! Eighteen water samples taken from beaches around the world were all found to contain microplastics. Fabric particles such as polyester, acrylic and nylon were among the major finds across the samples. Nowadays most of our clothes are made up of these synthetic fibres -researchers have discovered that just one garment can release up to 1,900 microplastic particles per wash!
When swallowed by animals these particles can become lodged in their cells which may cause harm and may also enter the food chain. In 2004 scientists tested plankton samples right back to the 1960s and found that the levels of microplastics had increased significantly over time. In recent tests they found that there were more plastic particles per sample than plankton! It is not yet known what the long term effects of this may be, but what we do know is that this plastic pollution will only increase as the production of synthetic fibre grows.
Ocean dustbin - The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a massive area of the Pacific Ocean that contains an alarming amount of rubbish! It is thought that all this rubbish has gathered and stayed there because of rotating sea currents, known as gyres. This plastic soup floats just below the surface and it is thought that some of the debris has been around for decades. This is the problem with plastic - it can never disappear. It does however, get smaller and smaller over time as the sun shines on it and splits it - this process is called photodegradation. In the process leaches toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A, PCBs, and derivatives of polystyrene.
This garbage patch cannot be seen from space (although the area it covers is the size of a small country!) and isn’t like an island of rubbish that you could walk on. The patch is defined by the higher than normal concentrations of debris and plastics. 10 metres below the surface there are all colours of plastic and bits floating about like flakes of fish food.
Here’s some interesting information about plastic and how it is made -
‘Nearly all the plastic items in our lives begin as little manufactured pellets of raw plastic resin, which are known in the industry as nurdles. More than 100 billion kilograms of them are shipped around the world every year, delivered to processing plants and then heated up, treated with other chemicals, stretched and moulded into our familiar products, containers and packaging.
During their loadings and unloadings, however, nurdles have a knack for spilling and escaping. They are light enough to become airborne in a good wind. They float wonderfully and can now be found in every ocean in the world, hence their new nickname: mermaids' tears.’. Drowning in plastic: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of France - Richard Grant, Telegraph
Remember - It is only humans that make materials that nature can’t digest!
Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans - Report by Greenpeace for the United Nations Environment Programme - (pdf download).
Read More: Sewage