12.7 million metric tons of new plastic ends up in the oceans each year, according to a study published in the journal Science. Earlier estimates had been as low as 4 million metric tons and this new estimate is believed to be an underestimation because it does not take into account plastics that do not float. There have been several methods suggested to clean up the oceans. These have included using a plastic-eating bacteria to degrade plastics over time and using nets as filters to capture ocean garbage and transport them back to land. With millions of metric tons of new plastic that makes its way to the oceans every year, preventing the plastics from ever making it to the oceans should be of top priority.
The plastics used in most consumer goods are chemically inert, which makes them highly resistant to degradation. This is a positive for the products we use in that chemicals won’t leach into and spoil the various consumers goods that we use that are packaged in plastics, but it is bad news for the environment. While plastics won’t degrade easily, they will break into small pieces in the ocean due to the physical damage that can occur on the coastline or from animals chewing on the plastic, and from natural degradation. Ocean wildlife will mistaken these prices of plastic for food and can sometime choke on these bits of plastics or become entangled and trapped in larger pieces of plastic. A study from UC Davis found that seabirds are attracted to and mistaken plastic for food because some plastics emit a sulfurous compound called dimethyl sulfide. This is a compound that is also produced by marine algae when they are consumed by krill, which is a common food for seabirds.
The massive amounts of plastic in the ocean and the difficulty in cleaning up the many small pieces of plastic has encouraged brainstorming of novel ways to remedy this issue. Scientists from Kyoto University in Japan discovered a species of bacteria that can degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is the type of plastic used to make water bottles and food containers. This strain of bacteria was able to degrade a film made from PET in only six weeks. A project called The Ocean Cleanup, founded by Boyan Slat, is utilizing what is essentially an ocean filter using nets that will extend six and half feet below the surface of the water to capture plastic debris. The captured debris will be buoyed into a large container where it will be stored until it is transported for recycling on land. The project is conducting tests and hopes to deploy a full-scale model in the near future.
While cleaning up the currently existing ocean pollution is important, ultimately the largest part of the solution will involve the prevention of plastics and garbage from reaching the ocean in the first place. In 2011, it was estimated that only 10 percent of the 300 million metric tons of plastic produced each year are recycled. Much of this plastic is expected to end up in the oceans and an increase in recycling could dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that reaches the oceans. In some areas, the recycling infrastructure does not exist and plastics inevitably ends up in landfills or the ocean, but even in developed countries like the United States, the recycling rate was only 34.3 percent in 2013. If consumers are not going to make a larger effort to recycle, companies and manufacturers can limit the amount of plastic packaging they use. One other way to make plastic more environmentally friendly is to make them more easily degradable. Several businesses have started up making edible cutlery that can either be eaten after they are used or can be disposed of without fear of long-term pollution due to their biodegradable ingredients.
Ocean pollution is a environmental crisis that doesn’t appear to be coming to an end anytime soon due to the vast amount of plastics that are produced each year and the low recyclability rates worldwide. Plastic-eating bacteria and ocean filters may aid in the removal of plastics from the ocean, but it doesn’t fix the underlying issue of the millions of metric tons of plastics that will end up in the ocean every year. Reducing the use of plastics and or making more biodegradable plastics will likely be the far more effective solution in fixing the long-term ocean pollution issue.
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