When you think of the trash problem in the ocean – the great garbage patch in the Pacific – what do you imagine? Like myself, I’m sure you envisioned something like the ocean’s surface covered with plastic coke bottles and six-pack rings. Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is far more complex.
Plastic doesn’t particularly sink or float. It remains near the surface to be broken down by the sun and salt water to form tiny plastic fragments.
These fragments then hover not only along the surface of the ocean but also throughout its depths, creating a floating field of perfectly bite sized plastic for fish. So, in addition to the logjam of plastic waste covering the ocean in the Pacific Gyre, there exists a separate realm of ecological disaster beneath the surface.
Plastic usage is having a serious effect on the already complex ecological processes of the ocean. Covering over 70% of planet, our knowledge of the ocean only extends to about 5%. The lack of knowledge about the ocean is enough to make one seriously question whether the Great Garbage Patch is just an eye-soar or something that may seriously taint what could be the lifeblood of the Earth.
When applied to the functionality of food webs, you’ll see that toxicity has a tendency to intensify as it climbs up the food chain. This process is called Biomagnification. In this case, our primary contaminant is Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA. The chemical BPA, frequently found in plastic bottles and other household items behaves as a toxin that leaches out of its physical confines when heated.
For example, when a baby bottle contains BPA and is put into a dish-washer, the heating process will force the chemical out of the plastic and into the air or fluid in the bottle. An even more dramatic circumstance of this reaction is the fact that each time that bottle is heated, the bottle will release that many more times of BPA. So, on the 16th wash, the baby bottle will emit 16 times more BPA than the first wash.
This type of toxicology has detrimental effects on the ecology of ocean environments. Zooplankton (derived from the Greek word for “drifter”), the beginning and backbone of the oceanic food chain, mistakenly feed on the microscopic sized pieces of plastic. These invertebrates are dubbed the most populous animals on the planet, even outnumbering any insect on land (70% of the Earth is covered in ocean). The term planktonic can also be used to describe anything that drifts with the ocean’s currents. So, in a way, the issue becomes one of plastic plankton.
This brings me back to the concept of Biomagnification and how toxicity levels rise by transcending up the food chain. Tiny Zooplankton come into contact and ingest BPA due to the chemical’s “algal sized characteristics” and ability to freely drift throughout the water column.The beginning of BPA’s journey up the food chain starts here. From there, BPA continues to multiply in magnitude since the fish that eat zooplankton are eaten by fish that we eat. Some studies found over 6x more “plastic plankton” in proportion to zooplankton in some areas of the Pacific.
There is however a practical and obtainable solution to this madness – Discontinue the usage of “short-lived” plastic goods. Short lived here implies that most plastic bottles and bags are used for a short amount of time, only to live the bulk of their lives, roughly 700 years, in the ocean and landfills. Our major plastic bottle producing companies have already developed an alternative to plastic with the aluminum bottle. What we as the consumers need to do now is urge them to discontinue the distribution of plastic bottles. The level of difficulty should never deter you from doing what is right because nothing is more viral than a good idea – and quitting plastic is a great idea.