By Summer Williamson and Adaline Bisese
Soup is delicious. It’s a fact, but how appetizing does a hot, steaming bowl of 2 billion tons of trash in 326 million cubic miles of salt water sound? That doesn’t seem very appealing. . . to any of the senses, yet “Ocean Soup” is the given name for the massive amounts of trash contaminating the oceans. This waste crisis is what the diverse ecosystem of marine wildlife live, moreover, suffer in. Litter and debris is found in all parts of the ocean, but the most infamous collection is known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
This mass of trash stretches 1.6 million square kilometers wide; more than the size of Texas doubled. The tropical cyclone sized patch is said to weigh more than 43,000 cars and is developing at alarming rates. Each year it grows exponentially, by nearly 300 millions tons, as it swirls through the currents of the Pacific Ocean; accumulating trash like a black hole. Scientists recently surveyed the patch and determined that the mass is 16 times larger than previously thought. A study conducted by The Ocean Cleanup Foundation in 2015 discovered that the waste consisted of mostly microplastics measuring less than 0.5 cm.
The size of the Pacific Garbage Patch is due in large part to the fact that plastic is not considered a “hazardous material.” Hazardous materials are defined as “any substance... which causes death, disease, behavioral abnormalities, etc.” by OSHA., or Occupational Safety and Health Administration. So when plastics spill into the ocean or other places in the environment, companies are not obligated to clean it. Instead, companies disregard the problem, and continue contributing to the tons of plastic polluting the ocean.
Twenty-seven years ago, 28,000 bath toys fell into the ocean while in transit from Hong Kong to the United States. These bath toys, dubbed “friendly floatees,” allowed scientists to better understand ocean currents. For the years that followed 1992, plastic bath toys have been washing to shore. Toys washed ashore from Australia all the way to Scotland. They were even found in ice patches along the Arctic Ocean. Most of these “friendly floatees have washed to shore, but 2,000 remain trapped in the North Pacific Gyre. The North Pacific Gyre is a vortex of ocean currents that trap floating objects. It is also the site of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch and plastic toys residing within it are depicted in the book Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn. Hohn’s purpose was to raise awareness for the growing problem of plastics in the oceanic ecosystem.
Plastics are a petroleum product, which comes from fossil fuels. Unlike glass or paper, plastic does not degrade. The first piece of plastic ever created is still on earth today. Although plastic does not degrade naturally, it does release from its original form to create microplastics (A.K.A. nurdles). This process occurred in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and is why the plastics have become so tiny. Solid plastics have essentially been turned to mush after years of harsh ocean currents grinding the plastics against each other, making it nearly impossible to clean the entire patch from the ocean. The microplastics compete with microorganisms in the ocean, and disrupt their natural balance.
Because of the abundance of plastics in the oceanic ecosystems, animals often mistake garbage for food. A few months ago, a dead sperm whale washed up on an Indonesian beach with its stomach full of plastic. The total weight of plastic cups, bags, and flip-flops was 13.2 pounds. Another whale with plastic in its stomach weighing 17 pounds also beached. Aquatic animals commonly mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and other types of plastics for fish. Plastics can come in any size so the increase in plastics polluting the ocean can only lead to an increase of whales and other organisms dying from mistaking plastic for a source of food.
Every year, thousands of sea turtles, fish, seals, seabirds, porpoises, and other marine creatures die due to the ingestion of, or entanglement in the masses of plastics. It is estimated that in the North Pacific alone, fish ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year (and then people consume them; microplastics and all). The consumption of plastics cause injuries to their intestines and death, then it gets passed along the food chain to larger fish, porpoises, and humans. A study in California revealed that a quarter of fish in markets contained plastic inside of their guts. Beyond the fish, sea turtles mistake floating garbage for food and upon ingestion, can choke, sustain intestinal injury, starve from false sensations of satisfied hunger, and die. This is a huge concern regarding Pacific Loggerhead sea turtles, an endangered species, as it is killing them and causing a decline in their reproduction. Countless amounts of seabirds have been found dead due starvation from plastics trapped in their intestines. The entanglement in oceanic debris has also caused a large issue for marine mammals, many of which are endangered, as it often leads to death. All of these unfortunate victims are due to the improper management of waste by humans.
The danger to the animals is cause enough for drastic changes, but these plastics are harming humans as well. As people consume seafood, they take in the plastics previously ingested by what they’re eating for dinner. This in turn introduces hazardous materials into their bodies. After all, plastics come from oil. Some deadly toxins that plastics are comprised of are lead, cadmium, mercury, and carcinogens (cancerous toxins). The plastics also contain BPA, and as they break down in the intestinal tract, they release toxins that interfere with hormonal functions.
The facts are undeniable. Plastics continue to accumulate in the oceans, polluting the environment millions of creature thrive in. The concern for the future of the environment is growing, but the amount of trash pollution doesn't have to. It is easy to reduce plastic use and trash on a personal level. One of the easiest methods to reduce the amount of plastic waste produced is to recycle. A second option is to hold on to your one-use plastics that could potentially be used a second or third time. This reduces the amount of reusable plastics put to waste. There is also the option of using paper bags instead of plastic bags when visiting the grocery store. The ways to reduce the amount of plastic making its way to the ocean are countless, meaning there are countless ways to help the environment.
It is imperative to be aware of the dangerous effects of discarded trash in oceans, and how it directly relates to the wildlife and people. It is necessary for changes to be implemented upon the methods in which trash is dealt with and the demand for a solution is critically high. As individuals, it is dire to apply personal adjustments to the management of waste and properly dispose of it (don’t litter, recycle, use glass, etc.). If changes are not made expeditiously, then the negative effect on the environment and to the health of all animals will become irreversible.