Plastic pollution in the oceans

Plastic is everywhere. It’s so widely used and in (or around) so many products, that we’ve almost become blind to it. But it’s filling the oceans, and harming all kinds of marine life.

Plastic is everywhere. It’s so widely used and in (or around) so many products, that we’ve almost become blind to it. But it’s filling the oceans, and harming all kinds of marine life.

Since its invention over 100 years ago[1], plastic has been sold to us as something that makes life easy;, because you can use it and then just throw it away.

It’s that ease and frequency of use that’s led us to where we are now. Humans have created 8300 million metric tonnes of plastic in the last 60+ years and every year between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes end up in our oceans, either floating in garbage patches, sinking to the seabed or washing up on beaches around the world. Plastic pollution is a global environmental crisis, because it never goes away.

Over time, plastic breaks down into smaller fragments due to exposure to the sun, wind and waves. It never really disappears though; the pieces just get smaller and smaller, becoming microplastics.

[1] Bakelite, the first fully-synthetic and commercially successful plastic.

Microplastics

Microplastic have been defined by the international scientific community as synthetic polymer particles <5 mm in diameter. Ubiquitous in the global marine environment, they are created either by the weathering and fragmentation of plastic litter or are released directly as preproduction pellets and powders, polymer particles in personal care products (PCPs) and medicines, etc.

Microplastics contain a cocktail of chemical compounds, such as plastic additives, which may leach out to the surrounding environment or when ingested. In addition, contaminants from other sources tend to adsorb to microplastics. Studies have shown that plastic debris meeting other pollutants in the oceans absorbs harmful chemicals from the seawater they float in, acting likepollution sponges. It was shown that plastic pellets suck up these dangerous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and toxins with a concentration factor that’s almost 1 million times greater compared to the overall concentration of the chemicals in seawater. In other words, the more hydrophobic a chemical, the greater its affinity for microplastics, thus making plastic far more deadly in the ocean than it would be on land.

There are also primary microplastics which have been created for use in personal-care products and other applications. Scientists call these particles “mermaid tears” and they have been found across all the world’s seas and beaches. They are not absorbed into nature, but float around and ultimately enter the food chain through ingestion by marine plankton, fish and filter feeders like the big whales (baleen whales).

Plastic - the facts

  • Humans have created 8300 million metric tonnes of plastic in the last 60+ years
  • Every year between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes end up in our oceans
  • A single 1L plastic bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world.
  • 56% of all cetacean species have been recorded eating plastic they’ve mistaken for food.

Find out why plastic is Not Whale Food

Reports about whales, dolphin and porpoises species with blockages or serious damage to their gastro-intestinal tract due to mistakenly eating plastics have become common in the last couple of years. In fact 56% of all cetacean species have been recorded eating plastic they’ve mistaken for food. This is a major problem for different species that feed and forage in different ways in locations around the world and all levels of the oceans.

Plastic is Not Whale Food. Out of concern for these amazing creatures we have created the NotWhaleFood website where you can find lots of information, news, inspiration etc.

Types of plastic

In chemistry, plastics are large molecules, called polymers, composed of repeated segments, called monomers, with carbon backbones. A polymer is simply a very large molecule made up of many smaller units joined together, generally end to end, to create a long chain. Polymers are divided into two distinct groups: thermoplastics (moldable) and thermosets (not). The word “plastics” generally applies to the synthetic products of chemistry.

Alexander Parkes created the first man-made plastic and publicly demonstrated it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. The material, called Parkesine, was an organic material derived from cellulose that, once heated, could be molded and retained its shape when cooled.

Many, but not all, plastic products have a number – the resin identification code – molded, formed or imprinted in or on the container, often on the bottom. This system of coding was developed in 1988 by the U.S.-based Society of the Plastics Industry to facilitate the recycling of post-consumer plastics. It is indeed, quite interesting to go through the fine lines.

1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) – Used in soft drink, juice, water, beer, mouthwash, peanut butter, salad dressing, detergent, and cleaner containers. Leaches antimony trioxide and (2ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP ).

2. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) – Used in opaque milk, water, and juice containers, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles, garbage bags, yogurt and margarine tubs, and cereal box liners. Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

3. Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC) – Used in toys, clear food and non-food packaging (e.g., cling wrap), some squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, shower curtains, medical tubing, and numerous construction products (e.g., pipes, siding). PVC has been described as one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. Leaches di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) or butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), depending on which is used as the plasticizer or softener (usually DEHP).

DEHP and BBzP are endocrine disruptors mimicking the female hormone estrogen; have been strongly linked to asthma and allergic symptoms in children; may cause certain types of cancer; and linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation, and body weight. In Europe, DEHP, BBzP, and other dangerous phthalates have been banned from use in plastic toys for children under three since 1999. Not so elsewhere, including Canada and the United States.

Dioxins are unintentionally, but unavoidably, produced during the manufacture of materials containing chlorine, including PVC and other chlorinated plastic feedstocks. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen and the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals. A characterization by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of cancer causing potential evaluated dioxin as over 10,000 times more potent than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine), half a million times more than arsenic, and a million or more times greater than all others.

4. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – Used in grocery store, dry cleaning, bread and frozen food bags, most plastic wraps, and squeezable bottles (honey, mustard). Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

5. Polypropylene (PP) – Used in ketchup bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, medicine and syrup bottles, straws, and Rubbermaid and other opaque plastic containers, including baby bottles. Considered a safer plastic. Research on risks associated with this type of plastic is ongoing.

6. Polystyrene (PS) – Used in Styrofoam containers, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, take-out food containers, plastic cutlery, and compact disc cases. Leaches styrene, an endocrine disruptor mimicking the female hormone oestrogen, and thus has the potential to cause reproductive and developmental problems. Long-term exposure by workers has shown brain and nervous system effects and adverse effects on red blood cells, liver, kidneys, and stomach in animal studies. Also present in second-hand cigarette smoke, off gassing of building materials, car exhaust, and possibly drinking water. Styrene migrates significantly from polystyrene containers into the container’s contents when oily foods are heated in such containers.

7. Other – This is a catch-all category that includes anything that does not come within the other six categories. As such, one must be careful in interpreting this category because it includes polycarbonate, a dangerous plastic, but it also includes the new, safer, biodegradable bio-based plastics made from renewable resources such as corn and potato starch and sugar cane. Polycarbonate is used in many plastic baby bottles, clear plastic sippy cups, sports water bottles, three and five gallon large water storage containers, metal food can liners, some juice and ketchup containers, compact discs, cell phones, and computers. Polycarbonate leaches Bisphenol A and numerous studies have indicated a wide array of possible adverse effects from low-level exposure to Bisphenol A like chromosome damage in female ovaries, decreased sperm production in males, early onset of puberty, various behavioural changes, altered immune function, and sex reversal in frogs.

Why doesn’t plastic  ‘disappear?’

Because plastic is a combination of elements extracted from crude oil or gas which are then remixed in the lab, it doesn’t readily decompose, as enzymes and microorganisms responsible for breaking down naturally occurring organic materials such as plants, dead animals, rocks and minerals do not recognise plastics. [2]

Plastic is normally classified, based on size, into four main categories:

Plastic is normally classified, based on size, into four main categories:

Macroplastics

size greater than 200 mm

Mesoplastics 

size between 5 and 200 mm

Microplastics

size between 0.001 mm and 5 mm

Nanoplastics

size smaller than 0.001 mm

[2] Except for the newly discovered enzyme that can break down plastics.

Help protect whales and dolphins and their homes

By adopting a whale or dolphin, by making a donation, or by fundraising for WDC, you can help us save these amazing creatures.

Orca - Rob Lott

Adopt

Adopt a whale and follow the lives of these amazing creatures.

Bottlenose dolphins leaping

Donate

Your support helps us take action to protect their homes.

Humpback whale spyhop

Fundraise

Run, bake, walk, cycle… what could you do to help?