Every year humans produce enough plastic to equate to the total mass of all adult humans currently living on the planet. Where does a vast amount of this plastic end up? In our oceans.
At this point most of us have heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” a floating mass of trash that has accumulated in the Pacific Ocean, a mass of trash that is larger than the state of Texas (there are also similar trash conglomerations in the Indian and Atlantic oceans as well). The majority of this ‘island’ is made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics, which will take upwards of 450 years to completely decompose. In fact the situation below the surface is perhaps even more devastating, what lies on the ocean floor is more trash still, where over 70% of marine debris ends up.
Estimations predict that by 2050 there may actually be more plastic than fish in the sea. A statistic with extremely troubling implications.
Further Reading: 7 Ways You Can Help Save The World’s Oceans
What happens is quite intuitive actually, fish (as well as other marine creatures) confuse the plastic for food and chow down. The chemicals used to create plastic are then absorbed by the fish, a rough estimate is that 2/3 of all fish will ingest plastic in a given year, and simultaneously enter into the world’s food chain. Fish are quite close to the bottom of the marine food chain meaning that plastic, and the chemicals that it is made up of, quickly make their way from one animal to the next until they make their way all the way to humans.
Further Reading: Do You Eat Fish? You Could be Eating Plastic.
However, before we talk about humans let’s look at the damage that happens before the plastic reaches our plates. Once ingested plastic begins to leach toxins into marine life which typically has one of three affects; it will stunt their growth, alter their reproduction system, or kill them. Fish are an essential part of our food chain, connecting nutrient rich plankton with higher level marine life. Meaning that if fish start dying out so too does a staggering number of other animals both marine based and terrestrial.
A recent study published by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego found that close to 10% of fish found near the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ had actual bits of plastic in their stomachs. Which means that an innocent fish dinner this summer might not be so innocent after all.
Further Reading from NPR: How Plastic in the Ocean is Contaminating Your Seafood
June 8th is World Oceans Day, this year’s theme being “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet.” Over four hundred events have already been planned worldwide making it easy to find a way to raise awareness and take action against ocean pollution.