Plastic has become an integral part of our daily life. From furniture to grocery bags, from vehicle parts to toys, plastic is an unavoidable element available in various forms. According to a study, a single plastic particle can absorb one million times more toxic chemicals than the water surrounding it.
Plastic isn’t biodegradable, accentuating the threat of lingering plastic for years and generations.
According to estimates, people worldwide throw away almost four million tons of trash daily, of which 12.8% is plastic, polluting land, air and water.
While plastic thrown into landfills contaminates the soil and groundwater with harmful chemicals and microorganisms, the marine pollution caused by plastic is immeasurable.
Just like on land, even in marine areas, the effects of plastic on marine life have started to be felt. The studies reveal that around 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste are washed into the ocean annually.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates there could already be as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles in the oceans.
This infographic by one ocean one world gives a clear idea of how plastic affects the sea.
While a part of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from land, predominantly due to mismanaged waste disposal, the ships and offshore oil and gas platforms also contribute to it.
In recent times, considering the increase in the disposal of plastic in the ocean, it has become imperative to take all possible measures to combat this problem by understanding the consequences of plastic in the sea.
But before one can do so, one must understand the repercussions of plastic in the sea, which is necessary to take protective measures even more sensibly.
Among all the threats to the marine environment, the threat from plastic is one of the most dangerous ones.
Some of the ruinations of the oceanic domain caused by plastic waste can be explained as follows:
Garbage in the ocean – namely plastic – jeopardises the natural ambience of marine life. It disrupts the entire bio-geo cycle causing unwanted problems to the marine ecosystem. Plastic from microfibers and microbeads released from wash-off products and cosmetics like face wash and toothpaste is also extremely harmful to aquatic flora and fauna.
Plastic threatens the existence of life underwater, right from smaller fishes to massive mammals and amphibians, in several ways. Reports say that around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every due to plastic ingestion. Unfortunately, several marine species are on the verge of extinction because of such a type of ocean pollution.
Consumption of plastic by sea creatures causes severe digestive problems, mainly untreated. Many sea animals eat plastic, mistaking it for food. It decreases the capacity of their stomachs, causing starvation. Reports suggest that plastic consumption by all types of fish amounts to several tons yearly. In addition to causing intestinal injury and death of these fish, this also spreads the risk across the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals.
According to scientists, coral reefs that come into contact with plastic trash have an 89 per cent chance of contracting a disease.
Sea turtles are the other unfortunate victims of ocean plastics apart from fish. Like fish and other marine beings, Sea turtles consume plastic litter as food, leading to a blockage in the gut, ulceration, and eventually death. Studies have found that half of the sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic.
Sea turtles and seals are the most common victims of ‘Ghost Nets’ in the ocean. Like plastic bags or bottles or other junk, fishing gear, fishing nets, and plastic crates also cause oceanic ruination. These plastic wastes harm marine life by choking life forms and also entanglement.
These nets are known as ghost nets or ghost gear, while the process of marine creatures being tangled in them is referred to as ‘Ghost Fishing.’ Regarding the stray plastic crates, a reference was made about a plastic crate choking a penguin in the movie “Happy Feet.”
Plastic waste in the oceans also threatens the life of birds and other beings that depend on the oceanic life forms for their food requirements. Most of the time, these beings suffer because of ingestion of plastic or because of suffocation, especially birds, by merely being tricked by the brighter colours of plastic junk.
The birds also often get caught in the debris and die due to suffocation. According to several kinds of research, 44% of all seabird species, along with cetaceans, oysters, mussels, corals and sea turtles, have been documented to have plastic debris in or around their bodies.
Plastic pollution in the seas affects human beings in different ways. In addition to the risks from polluted marine waters, ingestion of plastic by fish and other aquatic beings also, in turn, causes harm to people who consume marine food. Plastic contains a lot of substances which might otherwise be hazardous.
When fishing activities are carried out, there is every chance that fishes infected with such harmful substances might find their way into our households, causing health problems to the end consumers. Studies have found that toxins in plastics cause several health issues, including cancers, immune system problems, and congenital disabilities.
Check out this video by the United Nations on how plastic is ruining marine life.
The amount of garbage in the seas also pollutes the oceanic waters, just like plastic harms marine life in several ways. Disposing of hazardous materials, including toxic substances such as Bisphenol A, commonly found in many plastic commodities, pollutes the water badly.
Since Bisphenol A doesn’t get diluted in water, it results in grave environmental problems. Similarly, the debris uses oxygen as it degrades, resulting in a low level of oxygen in the seas. As oxygen levels go down, it badly affects the survival of marine animals, including whales, dolphins and penguins.
The ruination of the ocean doesn’t also only include the high seas. It also consists of the shores and beaches infested with plastic. The plastic waste can either float for miles on the water or could be submerged on the sea-bed or commonly be found on the seashore.
Such congested areas become easy threats to birds and other land animals caught in the chokehold of plastic. Irrespective of the location, the ecosystem gets hugely impaired because of such marine debris.
Ocean garbage in the form of plastic also leads to the invasion of non-indigenous species and organisms in naturally occurring marine colonies, thus posing a threat to the functioning of ecosystems. The billions of micro-plastic particles floating in the ocean are all potential carriers of non-indigenous invasive species.
Oceanic currents, particularly gyres, sometimes accumulate plastic within their spiral and concentrate in different ocean areas. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, is an example of such marine debris.
Researchers say this is the world’s largest ocean garbage site, and this floating garbage site is almost twice the size of Texas. Learn how the Ocean Cleanup system will be fighting this.
Plastic in the sea is a result of human callousness. Since the annual plastic consumption has been increasing globally, the amount of plastic waste in the waters is also increasing drastically.
And in addition to the ill effects on the marine ecosystem, plastic pollution also negatively impacts the economy as it affects sectors including tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, among others.
However, many efforts are underway to reduce plastic pollution in the seas, including cleaning up beaches and waterbodies and preventing the entry of plastic into the ocean in the first place. Many organisations are fighting to save the oceans.
Countries should discourage using single-use plastics like plastic straws, food wrappers, plastic bottles and bottle caps, which are disposed of after use. Instead, one should opt for plastic recycling on a large scale to prevent our planet from being littered with tons of plastic. As our world is grappling with global warming and climate change, we must change our lifestyle and limit our consumption to safeguard our earth.
Many countries have restricted or banned several forms of plastic products to battle plastic pollution, particularly in the ocean. The enumerable sewage treatment efforts worldwide and the increasing awareness about the negative impacts of plastic would possibly help us retain our oceans.
Over to you…
What, according to you, are the main dangers of plastic in the ocean?
Let’s know in the comments below.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What plastics end up in the ocean?
The ocean is littered with macro and micro-plastics, including plastic bags, toys, cigarette butts, bottles, food wraps and packaging, microfibers, microbeads from drains and sewage etc.
2. How does plastic harm marine life?
Plastics negatively impact marine life in several ways. Thousands of sea animals like seals, seagulls, and turtles get entangled in plastic debris or ingest it, which kills them. Many coral reefs catch diseases after coming in contact with plastics.
3. What is the major concern around plastic accumulating in oceans?
The leading cause of concern is that plastic is not biodegradable, and it is still being produced in many countries on a massive scale. It threatens all kinds of ecosystems, even human beings, once it enters the food chains.
4. How can we solve the plastic problem?
The plastic problem is complex and cannot be solved unless plastics are banned. However, the situation can improve if we limit single-use plastic and follow the rule of the three R’s, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
5. Can ocean plastic be recycled?
Once plastic enters the ocean, it degrades due to salt water and UV light effects. The material becomes brittle, fragmented and discoloured, which makes it unusable for recycling. Hence, most plastic recovered from oceans never makes it to the recycling plant and is kept in a warehouse and incinerated.
Disclaimer: The author’s views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used in the article, have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.
The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight.