Petroleum-based plastic kills Ocean Life on a scale that ranges from microscopic to global.

Pollution and Toxins: Oceans

Plastic litter poses a special threat to the world’s oceans. Because it is uniquely able to travel on currents of air and water for thousands of miles, plastic generally ends those journeys as ocean pollution. The vast majority of the ocean’s litter begins on land (80%). Moreover, the vast majority of the ocean’s litter is plastic (also 80%),1 and half of that plastic floats.2

The United Nations estimated in 2004 that ocean debris is killing more than a million seabirds and 100,000 mammals and sea turtles each year.3 These animals are physically injured by plastic when they become entangled in plastic debris or when they mistake it for food and eat it. They are chemically harmed when plastic-associated toxic chemicals concentrate in their food. Because plastic is a hydrophobic material that does not disolve in water, plastic does not dissolve in living creatures either. Consequently, many plastic-associated toxins are stored in the fatty tissues of the creatures that consume them. These toxins then “bioaccumulate” up the food chain, increasing in concentration with each subsequent predator consumes them.4

Floating plastic concentrates in giant “garbage patches,” created by circular patterns of currents in each of the world’s ocean.5 These garbage patches have grown ten times every decade since the 1950’s, and the North American Garbage Patch has a mass today of 3.5 million tons.6 This plastic has been degraded into tiny fragments by the physical actions of sun, wind, and water. Each Giant Ocean Garbage Patch floats just below the surface, suspending an array of plankton-sized bits of plastic among the ocean’s actual plankton, and outweighing the total mass of the plankton there by 6 to 1.5 Marine birds, fish, and sea turtles mistake these bits of plastic for plankton or other native prey. This plastic diet poses a threat to animals due to its toxicity, as a choking hazard, and because it can give the animal a false sense of fullness, ultimately resulting in starvation.2, 5

Page Notes:

  1. Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans; Michelle Allsopp, Adam Walters, David Santillo, and Paul Johnston; Greenpeace;; November 2, 2006.
  2. Pollution of the Marine Environment by Plastic Debris: A Review; Jose G. B. Derraik; Marine Pollution Bulletin 44;; 2002.
  3. Environmental Pollution: The Harmful Effects of Plastic Bags; Rita Putatunda; Buzzle;; Updated 12/14/11.
  4. Toxins in the Food Web; Melissa Kilgore; Chintimini Wildlife Rehabilitation Center;; Retrieved March 8, 2012.
  5. Mapping Plastic Pollution; Algalita Marine Research Institute;; Retrieved February 17, 2012.
  6. Continent-Size Toxic Stew of Plastic Trash Fouling Swath of Pacific Ocean; Justin Berton; San Francisco Chronicle;; October 19, 2007.