Research suggests that around eight million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans each year — enough to fill five plastic bags for every foot of coastline on the planet.
This plastic has a more significant impact than just being unsightly though. It’s killing growing numbers of marine creatures. One of the most comprehensive studies of the issue to date, conducted by researchers at Plymouth University, found that documented cases of floating debris affected as many as 700 different species, with plastic making up 92 percent of cases they studied.
How Plastic Affects Marine Life
The plastic that ends up in the ocean impacts sea creatures in a variety of ways. One of the most harmful is plastic ingestion. A wide range of sea creatures eat plastic, either by happenstance or because they mistake it for food.
Research into the impacts of plastic ingestion is ongoing, but both anecdotal and scientific evidence show that it can be extremely harmful. In the worst cases, it can lead to death. It could also have impacts on things such as animals’ metabolism and reproduction.
Impacts All Animals
Plastic ingestion can harm all sorts of marine creatures from the largest to the smallest.
A sperm whale recently washed up onto the coast of Spain. The 33-foot-long whale had more than 65 pounds of plastic in its stomach. It could not expel the plastic, so its digestive became infected.
Research has recently confirmed that anchovies are also eating plastic debris. The debris they ingest is known as microplastic that’s less than five millimeters in length and is made up of partially broken down pieces of plastic.
This doesn’t only affect anchovies though. When larger fish eat the anchovies, they also ingest the plastic. This pattern continues up the food chain and could even eventually make its way to humans.
Surface to Lowest Depths
Plastics also impact creatures from the ocean’s surface down to some of its lowest depths. Turtles tend to eat debris floating near the surface with a translucent appearance, such as bags or balloons. This may be because it looks similar to jellyfish. Seabirds also eat plastic, likely because it collects algae and takes on a smell that’s similar to the food these birds eat.
Researchers have also found microplastics at deep ocean depths. One way it can get there involves tiny ocean invertebrates called larvaceans. The plastic ends up in their fecal pellets, which sink quickly into the deep ocean.
Ingestion isn’t the only way that plastic debris harms marine life either. It can also entangle them and cause damage to their habitats.
The growing amount of research and publicized events, such as the death of the sperm whale off the coast of Spain, has inspired various projects that aim to clean up the oceans.
The sperm whale incident led local officials to launch a public awareness campaign of the plastics issue that included 11 beach cleanup events and 19 public forums. Similar events and campaigns are going on around the world.
Several technological solutions are also making headlines. One of the most promising ideas came from an 18-year-old from the Netherlands named Boyan Slat. He founded an organization called the Ocean Cleanup in 2013 based on a passive plastic collection system.
The system floats and moves with the currents the same way that plastic debris does. A drift anchor keeps the system moving slower than the plastic, however, which enables it to catch it in its solid screen. The organization estimates that it could reduce the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50 percent in just five years with full deployment. It expects to deploy its first system in mid-2018.
How You Can Help
You don’t necessarily have to be a scientist, engineer, inventor or public official to help protect marine animals from the harm caused by eating plastic.
Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is simply use less disposable plastics. If you do use some disposable plastic, ensure that it gets recycled or reuse it.
Another way to help is to find volunteer activities or participate in cleanup events. Even spreading the word about the plastics issue can also have a profound effect.