In March of this year, the skies over the Indian Ocean were marred by a horrible aviation tragedy, in which a Malaysian airliner crashed and 239 people were lost. The resulting search for the wreckage shed light on a huge peril facing our oceans: the mass field of debris, mostly plastic, that has accumulated in our world’s oceans.
There are 315 billion pounds of plastic in the oceans.
According to a study done by Stiv Wilson of the ocean conservation group 5 Gyres, the above statistic is a conservative estimate on how much plastic is in the oceans. Other findings from this group show that there are five major stretches of ocean where this debris has coalesced. In a review of the groups’ other findings, Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres says about 90 percent of the debris in all five garbage patches is plastic. These garbage patches vary in size and location, but to put it into perspective, Eriksen says: “The trash patch in the Indian Ocean comprises a massive area of at least two million square miles (about five million square kilometers) in size” — that’s almost ten times the size of Texas.
The problem rings alarm bells for scientists in several fields. Of this estimated 315 billion pounds of plastic, scientists have found that some of this plastic is technically missing. In a recent article in Sciencemag.org, Angus Chen explains that leading scientists believe plastics are making it into the food chain. Other explanations for the missing plastic, according to Patricia L. Corcoran of The Geological Society of America, is that the plastic is turning into a new type of rock, “plastiglomerates.” Once the plastic has fused to denser materials, like rock and coral, it sinks to the seafloor.
What can we do to help resolve this growing problem? The simplest solution that can be instituted almost immediately is recycling. The EPA’s most recent numbers indicate only 9 percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2012 was recovered for recycling. Until we, as a civilization, place a higher value on reducing demand and recycling plastics, the problem will only keep growing.
The video below explains further the life cycle of plastic: