Plastic Oceans

The human hand’s role destroying the environment cannot be denied. More specifically, industrialization has played a pivotal role in a constant cycle of ‘environmental erosion’. An area heavily hit by industrial activities is, and has been, our oceans. Pollution due to oil or chemical spills is the most prevalent prototype for this concept. Nevertheless, the dumping of plastics into ocean ecosystems can emulate, if not surpass, these effects. Waste disposal into oceans has resulted in the formation of several gyres—areas of heavy current that keep thrash swirling in whirlpools. The effects of these gyres, or garbage patches as they are sometimes called, are extensive and exponential in nature. Gyres, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, result in environmental disturbances by disrupting ecosystems and dissipating harmful chemicals. As a result, the effect of gyres extends far beyond an environmental inconvenience and into an issue that has a direct effect on humans.

Habitat disruption due to plastic waste is a considerable problem. As plastics roam the ocean, they either float or sink down to the ocean floor. Either way, their presence has a greatly disruptive effect. The plastic that floats washes up on nearby shores to wreak havoc. In the Japan area, which happens to be near one of these gyres, several tons of plastic waste plague the shores annually. In fact, some beaches lay covered with up to ten feet of this plastic trash (American Chemical Society). This means the carefully coordinated beach ecosystem is affected as interactions between various species are disturbed. As garbage piles on beaches, animals change their behavior in response and this has a domino effect that magnifies through the entire ecosystem. Albatrosses are a great model species for this negative effect. These birds have been shown to consume large amounts of plastic waste, which result in a larger than normal death rate for the species—more specifically because mother albatrosses are attracted to brightly colored plastic debris which they forage and then feed to their chicks (Public Library of Science). This example provides a clear situation in which human industrial activity, in the form of plastic, has a detrimental effect on distant ecosystems. Sunken plastic plays an equally detrimental role in the ocean bed. In the bottom of the ocean, it displaces various species by disrupting their ‘home’ environment. The overall result is a similar domino effect as the one seen with floating plastic. Animals in the ocean’s depths cope with sunken plastic by doing things like consuming it or using it as a home. In the end, the effects of plastics on ocean ecosystems are grand enough to cause considerable concern.

On a more molecular level, the chemical effects of plastic on ocean organisms are of equal concern to humans. It has been observed that plastics degrade under the hot, moist conditions of the ocean at a quicker rate, a process known as photodegradation. As a result, small, degraded plastic pellets super-concentrated with chemical compounds known as nurdles float about the ocean. Many animals, especially filter feeders, consume these nurdles. The chemicals in nurdles have been shown to have cumulative property, as they are deposited in the tissues of those who consume them. More importantly, these chemicals affect the hormonal balance of organisms and as result can cause reproductive problems (American Chemical Society). Also, it is debated whether or not they have carcinogenic properties. Regardless, due to the nature of the food chain, many times humans end up consuming organisms that are tainted by these chemicals—and because the chemicals have a cumulative property, they remain in the human body. The many chemical effects of plastic photodegradation on marine organisms and their possible carry over into humans are of great concern. Both the unnatural hormone levels and cumulative chemical compounds found in consumers of nurdles have the potential to greatly affect the human body.

All in all, the disposal of plastics into oceans has a detrimental effect that rivals disasters on the caliber of oil spills. Plastics, floating and sunken, affect ecosystems by damaging habitats and catalyzing domino effects. The toxicity of photodegraded plastic is another issue with ocean disposal—the cumulative nature of these compounds paired with their ability to cause hormonal imbalances wreaks havoc within ecosystem and has the potential to directly affect humans. The extensive negative effects of plastic disposal serve as an example of how the industrial world has a direct negative effect not only on distant ecosystems but also humans.

Works Cited

American Chemical Society. "Plastics In Oceans Decompose, Release Hazardous Chemicals, Surprising New Study Says."ScienceDaily 20 August 2009. 9 April 2010 <>.

American Chemical Society. "Hard Plastics Decompose in Oceans, Releasing Endocrine Disruptor BPA." ScienceDaily 24 March 2010. 10 April 2010 <>.

Public Library of Science. "Dining Out In An Ocean Of Plastic: How Foraging Albatrosses Put Plastic On The Menu." ScienceDaily 29 October 2009. 8 April 2010 <>.

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last updated 5/4/10