How Plastic Fragments are Changing the Ecology of the Oceans

Plastic is necessary to modern life, at least until suitable substitutes are found. But in marine environments, even more so than in landfills, plastic is problematic.  It has long been known that sea birds, turtles, some mammals and others starve or choke when ingested plastic is mistaken for food. It has also been known since the 1970s that many dolphins, as well as turtles and fish, get entangled in plastic netting to die slow, horrible deaths. Compared to plastic products and people who buy them, there are not enough organizations to make the blue oceans “green” and healthy.

One growing problem is with microplastics.  Microplastics are any fragments of plastic waste that accumulate in marine environments.  Besides persisting, they also have the capability to concentrate toxins such as absorbed DDT and PCBs. These are known as persistent pollutants. They tend to kill by contamination low in the food web, which then affects everything else in marine environments.

Plastic pollutants, besides killing by ingestion, entanglement, netting and poison, also affect ecosystems indirectly. A coral reef may be impacted negatively by both accumulated toxins and plastic use in over-fishing, abandoned gear, boat impacts and over use by tourism. Plastic bags, industrial waste, bottle caps and seemingly “harmless” bobbing bits of everything all factor in to affect complex webs of life. Ship and shore effects are also noted. A walk on most beaches will turn up many examples of fragments that clean-up crews cannot always keep up with, even with dedicated patrolling and clearing.

The University of Washington has researched and found that, although the problem is worldwide in scope,  not enough is known about which are the worst types of plastics, toxins  or even which entities create the problem plastics. There are no international, or even private, organizations to take up this colossal task of protecting oceans from plastic in its many lethal forms.

Major producers of plastic and plastic products are not held responsible for their inevitable discarded waste. This means that only a caring public can step up to change the present system, which puts oceans, and therefore humans, at risk. As many plastics are also known as endocrine disrupters and carcinogens, the problem has as many factors as there are plastics in every aspect of human life for human convenience.

More than 100 years ago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  In this epic work, a sailor is haunted for life and cursed for having killed just one of nature’s miraculous creatures: the albatross. Since that time, “having an albatross around one’s neck” has come to mean that a person carries a burden in need of repentant solutions. Yet, the rare albatross chicks of today are more likely to die indirectly at humans’ hands due to a careless bottle cap or discarded pen top.

In these modern times people use every smart phone, drinking straw, nylon jacket, baby pacifier, and even harmless Happy Meal toys, without thought. This speaks to the ironic “unhappy meals” at the basis for all life on Earth, unguarded and vulnerable oceans.