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December 09, 2006

World's Oceans Poisoned With Plastic Environment

Tiny pellets of plastic are everywhere in the world's oceans. That's bad enough in itself, but the plastic pellets tend to collect concentrations of toxic chemicals like PCBs that adhere to the plastic. The poisoned plastic is then ingested by marine organism and moves up the food chain. BBC:

Microscopic particles of plastic could be poisoning the oceans, according to a British team of researchers. They report that small plastic pellets called "mermaids' tears", which are the result of industry and domestic waste, have spread across the world's seas.

The scientists had previously found the debris on UK beaches and in European waters; now they have replicated the finding on four continents.

Scientists are worried that these fragments can get into the food chain.

Plastic rubbish, from drinks bottles and fishing nets to the ubiquitous carrier bag, ends up in the world's oceans.

Sturdy and durable plastic does not bio-degrade, it only breaks down physically, and so persists in the environment for possibly hundreds of years.

Among clumps of seaweed or flotsam washed up on the shore it is common to find mermaids' tears, small plastic pellets resembling fish eggs.

Some are the raw materials of the plastics industry spilled in transit from processing plants. Others are granules of domestic waste that have fragmented over the years.

Either way, mermaids' tears remain everywhere and are almost impossible to clean up.

Dr Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth is leading research into what happens when plastic breaks down in seawater and what effect it is having on the marine environment.

He and his team set out to out to find out how small these fragments can get. So far they've identified plastic particles of around 20 microns - thinner than the diameter of a human hair. [...]

They found plastic particles smaller than grains of sand. Dr Thompson's findings estimate there are 300,000 items of plastic per sq km of sea surface, and 100,000 per sq km of seabed.

So plastic appears to be everywhere in our seas. The next task was to try and find out what kind of sea creatures might be consuming it and with what consequences.

Thompson and his team conducted experiments on three species of filter feeders in their laboratory. They looked at the barnacle, the lugworm and the common amphipod or sand-hopper, and found that all three readily ingested plastic as they fed along the seabed.

"These creatures are eaten by others along food chain," Dr Thompson explained. "It seems an inevitable consequence that it will pass along the food chain. There is the possibility that chemicals could be transferred from plastics to marine organisms." [...]

So-called hydrophobic chemicals such as PCBs and other polymer additives accumulate on the surface of the sea and latch on to plastic debris.

"They can become magnified in concentration," said Richard Thompson, "and maybe in a different chemical environment, perhaps in the guts of organisms, those chemicals might be released." [...]

Whatever the findings eventually show, there is little that can be done now to deal with the vast quantities of plastic already in our oceans. It will be there for decades to come. [Emphasis added]

All of these environment stories — ice sheets, glaciers, and permafrost melting; 90% of large fish gone from the oceans; old growth forests and rain forests disappearing; toxic chemicals everywhere; etc., etc., etc. — get reported in isolation, but they're all connected. They're all facets of one big story. Sooner or later, we will have to face the fact that the problem is industrial civilization itself. And does anybody really think industrial civilization will voluntarily change course and stop killing the living planet? When all of these deadly trends are only accelerating? No amount of green living by scattered individuals, no amount of letters to the editor or symbolic demonstrations or Earth Days are going to change the outcome. The problem is way more fundamental than that. Not a happy conclusion, but there it is.

Posted by Jonathan at December 9, 2006 02:18 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


Humans are the only living organism capable of living unnaturally. Also, being the most intelligent organism, we have the choice not to do so.

Posted by: Jeff at December 9, 2006 10:44 PM

The sooner we all stop eating fish, the better.

Posted by: Dave Moorman at December 10, 2006 09:01 AM

Jeff, you forgot the wonder of the opposable thumb!

I stopped eating fish from the sea 6 or so years ago when the PCB-plastic-bottom of the food chain was 1st known to me. I stopped eating grown fish when I found out about prions (but some research shows prions are a mammalian feature). And the fresh water fish are a mecury-laden disaster.

The burden of waste disposal is on the commons. Sometimes you can just shift it off your property and onto someone elses land. And what is the value of this damage?

Posted by: at December 10, 2006 09:06 AM

I stand corrected. In addition to our superior intelligence, our dexterity does not seem to have served our species well. For can anyone name just one other organism, alive or extinct, that has “mechanically” altered the chemical composition of our environment?

Nature makes the rules people. The rules are not bendable and nature is not forgiving.

Posted by: Jeff at December 10, 2006 12:43 PM