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Ocean Disasters: Typhoons, Hurricanes,… and Plastic Pollution

PUBL0112 Ocean Disasters Typhoons, Hurricanes and Plastic Pollution

Ocean Disasters: Typhoons, Hurricanes,… and Plastic Pollution

This article examines the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and looks at the wider problem of ocean plastic pollution. The following article shows dimensions of mitigation efforts.

Various figures and numbers present the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and the underlying problem of plastic pollution in an alarming fashion. Although the data may differ, anyone can glean from a visit to the beach or a sail along the coastline or at sea that plastic and waste are seemingly ubiquitous. The situation has become such that the international community is on the way to adopting a legally binding instrument against plastic pollution. This follows from civil society and international attention to the ocean within the past decades. As with other matters of concern these days, any solution will require multistakeholder approaches that transcend administrative borders and industry domains.

Around 400 million tons of plastic were produced in 2021,[1] of which over 10 million tons made it into the ocean.[2] The production and consumption of plastics has tremendously increased due to their benefits. Thus, as others have highlighted, addressing plastic waste in the sea requires attending to the life cycle of plastic, which is usually produced using nonrenewable energy and later landfilled, incinerated, or left to the elements of nature.

With estimations that by 2050 plastic could outweigh all sea creatures,[3] upon which billions of people depend for nutrients and livelihoods, local, regional, and international communities must make concrete improvements. The health and economic consequences of doing otherwise may prove burdensome and fatal. This article examines the GPGP and looks at the wider problem of ocean plastic pollution. The following article shows dimensions of mitigation efforts.

GPGP

Although scientists had predicted the existence of a garbage zone at sea, it has been written that it was only in the 1990s that the GPGP was “discovered.” And what was discovered has since become a more numerically laden soup of mostly non-biodegradable plastics.[4] These plastics range in size (from largest to smallest): mega, macro, meso, micro, and nano.

Those that are buoyant are mostly concentrated in the first few meters of the ocean surface, although smaller fragments can be found in the water column at least 2,000 meters below the surface.[5]

Microplastics number over a trillion particles in the GPGP.

One model in 2018 “predicted at least 79 (45–129) thousand [tons] of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million km2; a figure four to sixteen times higher than previously reported.”[6] The Ocean Cleanup, an organization which will be written about more in the second, follow-on article, has claimed that “100 million kilograms of plastic float in the GPGP” and “1.8 trillion plastic pieces [are] dispersed over the [zone].”[7] (It must be understood that the organization identifies the GPGP as an area that is much smaller than that defined by the National Geographic Society.[8]) It also figures that 92 percent of the floating mass is made up of larger objects, the rest being microplastics.

Many plastics are submerged or laying on the seafloor, which the organization’s count of plastic pieces minimally registers and does not at all, respectively. “Oceanographers and ecologists […] discovered that about 70 percent of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.”[9]

In the Northeast Pacific, with which the GPGP is typically associated (given the common perception of its location between Hawaii on the west and California and Mexico on the east), the zone measures around three times the size of France or Thailand. Unlike what some people may think, there is not a floating island(s) of trash, although there may be sizeable collections of trash that have come together. Fishing and shipping industries contribute a significant portion of waste. In fact, The Ocean Cleanup has put the figure at around 80 percent of plastic waste coming from fishing activities,[10] whereas others have said that 50 percent do.[11]

The GPGP is not only a Northeast Pacific, let alone an American or Mexican, issue.

First, what comes around goes around: GPGP is a feature of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a system of ocean currents that runs clockwise from the West Coast of North America all the way to waters off Japan, where there is another garbage patch. The system flows east-bound south of Hawaii and returns west-bound via the Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone north of the U.S. islands state.[12]

Second, “[a]ccording to National Geographic, scientists found plastic coming from Russia, the United States, Europe, South America, Japan, and China on Henderson Island, an uninhabited isolated atoll halfway between Chile and New Zealand.”[13] Third, a Dutch company named The Ocean Cleanup is actively involved in removing marine waste from the Northeast Pacific accumulation zone; the Netherlands is a member of the European Union, which has in turn made an effort to promote a clean marine environment.

Of greatest significance is the knowledge that the GPGP is not the only oceanic garbage patch in the world.

In 2014, researchers determined that 37.9 percent and 35.8 percent (“by particle count and mass”)[14] of plastic pieces were found in the GPGP alone, out of the five main marine debris accumulation zones. They are found in the Indian, (Southeast) Pacific, (North) Atlantic, and (South) Atlantic Oceans. Significant plastic trash is found elsewhere. A study “found 100 to 1,000 times as many microplastic particles frozen in Arctic sea ice as the first such study did.”[15] Plastic waste is also located in the Mediterranean Sea, the Great Lakes in North America, and likely other places.

Data and Background Information on Ocean Pollution

In 2019, “plastic litter represent[ed] around 70 [percent] of all the pollutants in the oceans.”[16] The large proportion of plastic content in the sea is connected to a frightful occurrence: A 2021 report by the UNEP and two other entities reads that around 80 percent of all plastics ever produced have “been disposed of in landfills or released into the environment.”[17]

Plastic, essentially a polymer, has been around for less than 175 years, and it began to be mass-produced around the middle of the last century; however, the first two decades of the second millennium saw around as much as or more plastic made than the previous five decades combined.[18] Even more of the material is projected to be manufactured. As much plastic as there is, it is no wonder that it can be found all over the place, including in the air, land, and sea. Scientists have become more aware of the phenomenon in the past years.

The first academic paper concerning ocean plastic pollution was published in 1972.[19] The author wrote it after observing plastic hundreds of miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. Yet research largely has centered on the GPGP.

  1. Characteristics of ocean plastic

Study has shown that “[l]and-based sources of marine pollution account for 80 [percent] of all marine plastic pollution.”[20] Rivers and winds transport the pollutants into coastal waters. Most of them wash back to shore.[21] However, a small portion get swept farther out.

A significant amount of said polymers found at sea is single-use or derive therefrom. More specifically, in 2019 polyethylene (of which plastic bags are made) was found in “marine microplastic debris” in close to 80 percent of studies.[22] This was followed by polypropylene (in over 60 percent of studies), polystyrene (around 40 percent) and nylon.[23] Plastic products and fragments come in various sizes, from mega-plastics greater than 50 centimeters and macroparticles measuring five to 50 centimeters to microparticles that are no bigger than five millimeters.[24] (Nanoparticles are even smaller.) Primary microparticles are those originally manufactured at the relevant small size (such as beads in toothpaste) while secondary ones are formed by photodegradation and waves.

Adding to the dangers of seaborne plastic is the fact that “[m]icroplastics often contain a complex cocktail of chemical additives […], and they can absorb organic matter, bacteria and additional chemical contaminants from the surrounding seawater.”[25]

  1. The quantity of ocean plastics

The amount of plastic at sea is staggering: “[…Estimates] show that the accumulated number of microplastic particles in 2014 range[d] from 15 to 51 trillion particles, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons, which [was] only approximately 1 [percent] of global plastic waste estimated to enter the ocean in the year 2010.”[26] Moreover, the 2021 report mentioned at the beginning of this section suggests “[w]ithout meaningful action, flows of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are expected to nearly triple from around 11 million tons in 2016 to around 29 million tons in 2040.”[27]

One paper has estimated that the polymer debris in the GPGP “is growing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.”[28] The estimated mass of the three most littered plastics […] combined of 32-651µm size class suspended in the top 200 metres of the Atlantic Ocean is 11.6-21.1 million [tons…]; extrapolating these figures to the global oceans yields an estimated 50-90 million [tons].”[29]

  1. Location of ocean plastics

Many plastics float. Nevertheless, as written above, plastics are suspended in the water column and they also sink to the seafloor and other features of bathymetry (underwater topography). “Conservative estimates indicate that 14 million [tons] of microplastics are currently on the ocean floor at abyssal depths.”[30]

It is concerning that the polymer is in the midwater of the water column, a “zone [which] is key habitat for the majority of marine animals.”[31] This leads us to the effects of plastics on nature and humans.

Effect of plastic waste on the sea environment

Ocean animals at the bottom and the top of the food chain are exposed to and harmed by the polymer.[32] Negative impacts include entanglement (in fishing “ghost” nets) and ingestion. “Field studies have demonstrated that they are ingested by a wide variety of marine animals living in the water column and on the sea floor.”[33] Moreover, “[p]lastic particles can affect animals’ tissues and cell receptors…”[34] and “…studies have shown that microplastics can interfere with reproduction and damage internal organs in some organisms.”[35]

Not only do they hurt individual organisms, but they can potentially cause changes to ecosystems.

Plastic from the land and seashore transports coastal creatures to the sea, where they meet animals with whom they normally do not interact. This “might increase the odds of biological invasions wreaking havoc on nearby ecosystems.”[36] “And the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch doesn’t necessarily stay there but can instead wash up on foreign beaches, where transplanted species might take root.”[37]

Potential effect on humans, society, and the economy

Humans consume sea creatures that have been found to have microplastics in them.

(“A study in April [2018] found particles and microfibers in packaged sea salt…”[38]) “Via the intake of microplastics or their chemical compounds […] ocean garbage has become a latent threat to the health of future generations, and already affects human health on a global scale. Human biomonitoring shows that compounds used for plastic production are already ubiquitous in human blood and cells.”[39] However, a more recent study holds “there is still major uncertainty about the level of our exposure (especially to nanoplastics) and the potential for these particles to cause harm.”[40]

Even so, one can notice “[a] large number of systematic reviews have revealed associations between environmental exposure to existing or banned plastic additives and health outcomes.”[41] Psychological unease could also stem from the pollution.[42]

As for economic impacts, “[t]he total cost of damage [from ocean plastic trash] to marine industries in 2015 in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) region has been estimated at US$ 10.8 billion annually, a substantial increase over the 2009 estimate of US$ 1.26 billion.”[43] Adding to this number the costs of polymer pollutants in other regions, as well as the projected growth in plastic consumption in the next decades, global costs could rise to hundreds of billions of dollars by the middle of the century. (And these would be excluding the health costs to humans and animals.) Although the amount would not be comparable to the quantified damages of tropical cyclones, it would still be burdensome. (“In the decade through 2022, hurricanes resulted in USD 609 [billion] of economic losses, of which just USD 277 [billion] was covered by insurance.” [44])

Societal costs include time and public funds being spent on cleanup and the loss of livelihoods that are dependent on the ocean-based economy. [45] “Beaches trashed with marine litter are less likely to be visited by tourists, reducing income for beach communities by millions of dollars annually.”[46]

Conclusion

If plastic pollution at sea can negatively impact humans and ecosystems, then the same pollution on land may be even more detrimental to life due to farming and the heavy concentrations of people on contaminated land. Land and sea are connected, as are the different stages in the life cycle of plastic. This may all cause distress and seem overwhelming, and so it is, but there is ongoing action to deal with the situation.

REFERENCES

[1] United Nations Environment Programme (2021a). Drowning in Plastics – Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/drowning-plastics-marine-litter-and-plastic-waste-vital-graphics

[2] Cho, Renee. “How Do We Clean up All That Ocean Plastic?” https://news.climate.columbia.edu/, October 24, 2022. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/10/13/how-do-we-clean-up-all-that-ocean-plastic/#:~:text=There%20are%20currently%2075%20to,into%20the%20seas%20each%20year. Viewed January 8, 2024.

[3] Wearden, Graeme. “More Plastic than Fish in the Sea by 2050, Says Ellen MacArthur.” The Guardian, January 19, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jan/19/more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-sea-by-2050-warns-ellen-macarthur. Viewed January 8, 2024.

[4] Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F. et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Sci Rep 8, 4666 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w

[5] Lebreton et al. (2018).

[6] Lebreton et al. (2018).

[7] Everything We Know About Ocean Plastic Pollution So Far. The Ocean Cleanup. Youtube.Com, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDKRA0fAz-k. (4:29 out of 7:05)

[8] Evers, Jeannie. “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” National Geographic Education, October 19, 2023. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/great-pacific-garbage-patch/. Viewed early January 2024.

[9] Evers (2023).

[10] Everything We Know About Ocean Plastic Pollution So Far. The Ocean Cleanup. Youtube.Com, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDKRA0fAz-k. (5:01 out of 7:05)

[11] Zaman, M.S., Rakeen Zaman, and Robert Sizemore. “Plastic Pollution of the Oceans: A Review of Marine Plastic Pollution and Its Environmental Impacts.” Researchgate.Net, (2020). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340182934_Plastic_Pollution_of_the_Oceans_A_Review_of_Marine_Plastic_Pollution_and_Its_Environmental_Impacts.

[12] Evers (2023).

[13] Fava, Marta. “Plastic Pollution in the Ocean: Data, Facts, Consequences.” Ocean Literacy Portal, June 9, 2022. https://oceanliteracy.unesco.org/plastic-pollution-ocean/. Viewed early January 2024.

[14] Eriksen M, Lebreton LC, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, Galgani F, Ryan PG, Reisser J. Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS One. (2014); 9(12):e111913. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111913. PMID: 25494041; PMCID: PMC4262196.

[15] Thompson, Andrea. “Earth Has a Hidden Plastic Problem-Scientists Are Hunting It Down.” Scientific American, August 13, 2018. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/microplastics-earth-has-a-hidden-plastic-problem-mdash-scientists-are-hunting-it-down/. Viewed 7 January 2024.

[16] Zaman, Zaman & Sizemore (2020).

[17] United Nations Environment Programme (2021b). Drowning in Plastics – Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics.

https://wedocs.unep.org/xmlui/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/36964/VITGRAPH.pdf

[18] Zaman, Zaman & Sizemore (2020).

[19] Thompson (2018).

[20] United Nations Environment Programme (2021c). Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution. Nairobi. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/35417/EJIPP.pdf; Viewed early January 2024.

[21] The Ocean Cleanup. “Ocean Plastic Pollution Explained.” The Ocean Cleanup, December 19, 2023. https://theoceancleanup.com/ocean-plastic/. Viewed early January 2024.

[22] Thompson, Andrea. “From Fish to Humans, a Microplastic Invasion May Be Taking a Toll.” Scientific American, September 4, 2018. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/from-fish-to-humans-a-microplastic-invasion-may-be-taking-a-toll/#:~:text=From%20Fish%20to%20Humans%2C%20A%20Microplastic%20Invasion%20May%20Be%20Taking%20a%20Toll,-Tiny%20bits%20of&text=A%20Rainbow%20Runner%20in%20the,pieces%20of%20plastic%20(2008).&text=This%20is%20the%20second%20of,Mark%20Browne%20had%20a%20suspicion.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Lebreton et al. (2018)

[25] United Nations Environment Programme (2021b).

[26] van Sebille, Erik et al. A global inventory of small floating plastic debris. Environ. Res. Lett. 10 124006 (2015).

DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/124006; https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/124006

[27] United Nations Environment Programme (2021a).

[28] Lebreton et al. (2018).

[29] United Nations Environment Programme (2021b).

[30] Ibid.

[31] Nuwer, Rachel. “The Deep Ocean Harbors a Mountain of Microplastic Pollution.” Scientific American, June 6, 2019. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-deep-ocean-harbors-a-mountain-of-microplastic-pollution/. Viewed January 7, 2024.

[32] United Nations Environment Programme (2021b).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Nuwer (2019).

[36] Bartels, Meghan. “Surprising Creatures Lurk in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Scientific American, April 17, 2023. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/surprising-creatures-lurk-in-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch/. Viewed January 7, 2024.

[37] Bartels (2023).

[38] Thompson (2018).

[39] Efferth, Thomas, Paul, Norbert W. Threats to human health by great ocean garbage patches. The Lancet, VOLUME 1, ISSUE 8, E301-E303 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(17)30140-7

[40] United Nations Environment Programme (2021b).

[41] Ibid.

[42] United Nations Environment Programme (2021c).

[43] United Nations Environment Programme (2021b).

[44] Swiss Re Institute. “Tropical Cyclones: Natural Catastrophes in Focus.” swissre.com, December 14, 2023. https://www.swissre.com/risk-knowledge/mitigating-climate-risk/tropical-cyclones.html.

[45] United Nations Environment Programme (2021c).

[46] Ibid.

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