You have likely seen the pictures of albatross chicks chocking on plastics. These images are tough to look at and the death these birds suffer from ingesting plastics is gruesome and painful. Albatross consume a whole range of plastics that float in the ocean, from cigarette lighters, to toothbrushes to shards of plastics from a huge variety of other plastic products. As a conservation organization, Ocean Conservancy is deeply troubled by the impact of plastics on these magnificent birds. But how pervasive is this problem, really? A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS gives us a disturbing answer. It turns out plastics in seabirds is a very big deal. It is global, pervasive and increasing. And it has to be stopped.
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Walk along a beach or waterway and you’re apt to see a food wrapper floating on the water or glimpse a beverage bottle made of plastic hovering near the shore. Read an article about the ocean gyres, the so-called “garbage patches,” and you’re likely to hear about the vast amounts of plastics that are polluting the seas.
Three years ago, researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) set out to quantify – for the first time – the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land-based sources. Their research shows staggering results – with annual plastics inputs into the ocean exceeding 4.8 million tonnes and possibly as high as 12.7 million tonnes (approx. 11-26 billion pounds). Because the quantities are growing rapidly due to increases both in population and in plastics use, there may be as much as 250 million tons (550 billion pounds) of plastic in the ocean within another decade. These findings were published today in the February issue of Science and provide more in-depth information about what is happening with plastics in the ocean.
Once plastics enter the marine environment they disperse across our global ocean. There is no one single entry point for ocean plastic pollution. In fact, the global problem is comprised of a myriad of local inputs from beaches and waterways around the world. But the recent research shows that the largest amounts of plastic in the ocean come from a relatively small number of rapidly developing economies. In fact, 83 percent of the plastic waste that is available to enter the ocean comes from just 20 countries; chief among them are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines with the United States rounding out the top 20. The economies where plastic inputs are greatest are those where population growth and plastics consumption is severely outpacing waste management capacity. In many of these geographies waste collection is simply nonexistent.
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