No, the plastics in the ocean have not accumulated into a “floating island of trash more than twice the size of Texas.” But that doesn’t make the figurative landmass of plastic invading marine habitats any less of a problem.
Kara Lavender Law, research professor of oceanography at Sea Education Association, became aware of a so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” more than a decade ago. “We knew internally that this simply was not an accurate depiction of the problem,” Law told the audience attending the April 4 Common Hour, a community discussion conducted each Thursday classes are in session.
There is a large amount of plastic in the ocean and there are areas where it tends to accumulate, which Law and other researchers who study ocean physics believe is due to currents. However, most of the plastic problem looms beneath the surface, not floating at the top.
A staggering amount of plastic has been produced since 1950—approximately 8.3 billion metric tons. Of that total, 90 percent are still in existence. “To our knowledge, plastics never break down in the environment,” Law said.
It is estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean from land per year. Some plastics enter the water via catastrophic events like tsunamis, and others enter via human activities like fishing and shipping. But the majority is discarded as waste, including properly managed waste.
The most insidious of ocean plastics are microplastics, which are mostly formed from large objects breaking down. There are also even smaller microfibers that come from the plastics found in clothing such as fleeces, which enter the water when clothing is washed.
“Even though these are very small particles and are not easily seen, they are still a contaminant in the ocean,” Law explained.
Microplastics are now discovered in the stomachs of marine life and larger plastics have displaced some populations, forcing them to new locations and potentially creating invasive species. There’s still much to learn about the long-term impacts of plastics on marine life—and the humans who consume that life via their drinking water and sushi—but we should still work on solutions, Law said.
On Sept. 26, 2018, Law testified before congress on how to reduce the impact of marine debris on the environment, wildlife and human health. Soon afterward, the Save Our Seas Act was signed into law, which, among other positive effects, released funds to states for cleanup and response efforts.
Changes to policy at both the international and federal levels are just one step of the many we need to take to move forward. And that work needs to happen at the individual level, too. Individual solutions include organizing mass cleanups, avoiding single-use plastics, recycling responsibly, and capturing microfibers in washers.
Above everything else, Law said, just be conscious of what you consume and how you dispose of it. “I would encourage all of you to ask a very basic question,” she said. “‘Where does my trash go?’”