Humans are plasticizing the ocean

Families of passengers aboard the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 are riding an emotional roller-coaster. One day, their spirits are lifted by reports of debris spotted by searchers.

Families of passengers aboard the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 are riding an emotional roller-coaster.

One day, their spirits are lifted by reports of debris spotted by searchers.

The next day, their spirits are trampled by reports the debris was yet another sighting of ocean junk.

And then data transmitted by a French satellite reported a debris field containing 122 objects on the surface of the Indian Ocean. Yet again, it was identified as floating garbage.

A CBC report says that these false leads are not only heartbreaking for families, “but give an indication of the vast amount of junk floating in the open seas.”

The oceans, in fact, have been turned into the world’s biggest and most convenient landfill sites.

Upwards of 200 million tons of garbage is now bobbing around.

It’s a convenient method of disposal, because it’s almost impossible to monitor ocean dumping —and besides, the tide will carry the trash away to some other country, or into the vast unknown.

And how much more garbage has settled on the oceans’ bottoms? It’s anybody’s guess, say researchers.

The main ingredient in this polluted stew is plastic products. Researchers suggest 2.5 per cent of the world’s plastic lands in an ocean.

“Basically, the world’s oceans are plasticized,” says Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a conservation group that researches the amount of plastic polluting the seas.

“We’re treating the oceans like a trash bin,” says the Natural Resources Defence Council, a non-profit international advocacy group, with offices in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Beijing.

“Plastic that pollutes our oceans and waterways has severe impacts on our environment and our economy,” the group states.

“Seabirds, whales, sea turtles and other marine life are eating marine plastic pollution and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation.”

Eriksen says there are no reliable estimates of the amount of ocean junk worldwide.

“You’re going to find some light bulbs, fluorescent tubes, some wood, some coconuts, but by and large, it’s mostly plastic.”

And the amount of garbage that settles to the bottom of the oceans is “virtually unknown.” Eriksen’s group is about to report the findings of a six-year-study during which 24 expeditions were made.

It concludes there are nearly 5.25 trillion ‘particles’ of plastic trash in the oceans, weighing half a million tons. Keep in mind these particles form as plastic products eventually break apart, not break down — plastic is not biodegradable.

Science has determined that 93 per cent of those particles are about the size of a grain of rice or smaller.

This means cleaning up the oceans is nearly impossible.

A floating water bottle is easy enough to pluck from the waters.

But the plastic particles are basically invisible, unless ‘harvested’ through scientific means.

“That really makes cleanup very impractical,” says Ericksen. “You can’t get all these trillions of small particles out of the ocean.”

The size and abundance of these particles raises questions about the impact on whales, who depend on krill, a small shrimp-like creature, to survive.

The whales swim through massive swarms of these creatures, sometimes numbering up to 60,000 per cubic metre, scooping them up and expelling the sea water.

What impact do these plastic particles have if ingested by whales along with the krill?

Floating trash can be seen all over the oceans, but the biggest cesspools are in gyres — large systems of rotating ocean currents between continents that trap the garbage.

“These gyres concentrate the garbage at the surface, just like a filter in a bathtub drain concentrates the hairs from a bath,” says Eric Galbraith, an assistant professor in the department of earth and planetary science at McGill University.

Five of these gyres figure prominently in scientific studies — including the Indian Ocean gyre, just west of where it’s thought the Malaysian Airline went down.

Scientists have dubbed the most infamous example of these massive whirlpools the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Located between Hawaii and California, it’s a whirling soup of plastic bottles and other garbage.

National Geographic reported that at one time scientists collected at least 750,000 bits of plastic in a square kilometre of that patch.

When you stand on a ocean-side beach watching the thundering surf rolling in, it’s difficult to imagine such massive bodies of water could fall victim to pollution.

And there is no easy solution.

“Plastics, like diamonds, are forever,” says the resources defence council.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.