Can The Oceans Survive An Unprecedented Influx Of Plastics?

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Plastics are very appealing to people around the world. They’re important due to their daily use and functionality because they are the most versatile materials of contemporary times. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, corrosion-resistant, elastic, and have a durable composition. However, the influx of plastics entering the world’s oceans, without immediate action to reverse the current trend, is expected to increase roughly 2.5 times from 2016 to 2040.

The effects of plastic pollution are devastating.

It’s time to hold manufacturers accountable for their roles in the influx of plastics in marine ecosystems. Manufacturers should not be allowed to reap profits while their toxic products and packaging harm marine health.

What does a global time series that estimates the average counts and mass of small plastics in the ocean surface layer look like from 1979 to 2019?

  • No clear detectable trend until 1990
  • A fluctuating but stagnant trend from then until 2005
  • A rapid increase until the present

Today’s global abundance is estimated at approximately 82–358 trillion plastic particles weighing 1.1–4.9 million tons.

Researchers from 5Gyres, a US group that campaigns to tackle plastic pollution, released a 2023 study that argues “cleanup is futile” if plastic continues to be produced at the current rate. The plastic industry is to blame, they say, for rejecting commitments on buying recycled material or designing for recyclability.

To tackle the plastic problem, the researchers have turned to lawmakers to enact policy measures that focus on source reduction and reuse in order to minimize ecological, social, and economic harm.

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“The exponential increase in microplastics across the world’s oceans is a stark warning that we must act now at a global scale, stop focusing on cleanup and recycling, and usher in an age of corporate responsibility for the entire life of the things they make,” said Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of The 5 Gyres Institute.

Is it time to hit ’em where it hurts? If plastic pollution producers had to pay a fine per ton of manufactured plastic, or have a manufacturing quota, or be restricted to use solely existing plastics for new items, how would they react? What if there were manufacturing rewards for converting to time-dependent disposable packaging and food ware? What if producers were required to create containers that were bulk, refillable, or sustainable?

The Problem with Ocean Plastics

Currently, 60–80% of litter is plastic, and almost 10% ends up in the ocean directly or indirectly. Plastics often suffer from photooxidation, producing microplastics, and these microplastics derived from the breakdown of larger plastics are called secondary microplastics. These compounds simply cannot be extracted from the oceans, and, once mixed, they enter the food chain and have toxic effects.

Most synthetic polymers are of petrochemical origin. Marine litter is a result of complicated waste management problems, and it affects all the oceans of the planet, from surface to seafloor, appearing in places as remote as the Arctic or Antarctica. Plastic litter has always been recorded to be the most abundant marine litter compared with other types of marine litter.

Microplastics can enter waterways through domestic or industrial drainage systems and wastewater treatment plants, straining through the filtration systems most of them. Microplastics have been reported in marine sediments worldwide, leading to the belief that the depths of the ocean will become a long term sink for microplastics. Plastics accumulate in different ocean compartments: surface, water column, seafloor, and mobilization of microplastics to biota.

The Combined Effect of Ocean Acidification & Plastic Pollution

Ocean acidification and plastic pollution are considered as potential planetary boundary threats for which crossing certain thresholds could be very harmful for the world’s societies and ecosystems well-being, according to another 2023 study. Anthropogenic ocean acidification is a consequence of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, cement production, and land use changes. As atmospheric CO2 dissolves in seawater, it participates in a series of chemical reactions resulting in an increase of hydrogen ions concentration and, as a result, a decrease in seawater pH.

This also leads to a reduction of carbonate ions which are used by calcifying organisms to build their calcium carbonate shells or skeletons, making the calcification more difficult and the solid structures more vulnerable. Together with other detrimental effects, ocean acidification is affecting marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

Since the Industrial Revolution, surface oceans have acidified an average of 0.1 units, and time series have shown a decreasing trend of around 0.02 pH units per decade. Up to 13 million tons of plastic now end up in the ocean every year, causing problems in marine organisms and even in the health of humans, as microplastics have already found their way into human food and drinking water. For example, as microplastics increase in the ocean over time, their ingestion by fish also increases.

Plastics, new and weathered, are known to release chemical compounds into seawater, which can be either additives or oligomers that form part of the polymer structure. In the environment, plastic undergoes degradation, mainly driven by sunlight radiation. This process not only embraces scratches and physical changes in the plastic pieces but also induces changes in their chemical composition and structure. Some of the reactions mediated by sunlight may enhance the leaching of dissolved organic compounds, which can alter the biogeochemistry of seawater and affect heterotrophic bacterial growth.

United Nations Negotiates Plastic Pollution with Circular Economy Provisions

The United Nations kicked off negotiations on an agreement to tackle plastic pollution in Uruguay in November, 2022, with the aim of drawing up a legally binding treaty by the end of 2023. The Plastic Pollution Treaty’s scope, as articulated by a United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) resolution, includes the circular economy and elements of the plastic life cycle as vital elements for addressing plastic pollution and production.

To address these issues, the Plastic Pollution Treaty looks to consider the value of explicit and implicit inclusion of circular economy provisions so as to address the potential for technological growth and change. The plastic life-cycle should be understood as multi-phased, the draft indicates, with each phase requiring inclusion in the Plastic Pollution Treaty as well as the national action plans and other potential oversight and compliance mechanisms. Methods for national oversight of efforts to address plastic pollution throughout all phases of the plastic life-cycle were seen as imperative.

The need to develop a common understanding of what constitutes a circular economy for plastics emerged so that also sustainable production and consumption could best be promoted through a new plastics agreement. An explicit definition of the interaction of the circular economy and plastics pollution would be the design of materials and products in such a way that their value is maintained as high as possible and for as long as possible. Additionally, harmful environmental impacts would be minimized throughout the whole life cycle. This would mean considering, among other things, the choice of feedstock (renewable or not), pollution from usage, the risks of leakage into the environment, and end-of-life options as part of the definition ambit.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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