The Plastic Problem
Because of the increasing output of disposable plastic products, plastic waste has become one of the most serious global environmental issues. Plastic pollution is particularly noticeable in developing regions like Asia and Africa, where waste management systems are either inefficient or non-existent. Plastic waste has become so widespread that efforts have been made to draft a global agreement that will be ratified by the United Nations.
According to studies, much of the plastic waste in the oceans comes directly from land through major rivers, which serve as conveyor belts, bringing more and more trash downstream. Most plastic waste remains in coastal areas at first, but once washed up by ocean waves, it can be transported all over the world.
The consequences of plastic in the ocean are enormous. Plastics endanger millions of animals every year, including birds, fish, and other marine organisms. Nearly 700 animals, including endangered species, have been known to be harmed by plastics. Animal deaths due to entanglement or starvation are the most visible result of plastic. Abandoned fishing gear or discarded six-pack rings often suffocate seals, tortoises, and other animals. Other more subtle consequences include the consumption of microplastics by the marine species that we often consume. In fact, microplastics have been detected in more than 100 marine species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels, which ultimately end up on our dinner plates. Sometimes plastics have also been shown to obstruct the digestive tract or pierced organs, causing death. Animal stomachs have been found filled with plastics, which impedes the urge to feed, ultimately inducing malnutrition.
Microplastic ingestion by marine animals that we often eat is one of the more subtle effects. Microplastics have been found in over 100 marine animals, including fish, shrimp, and mussels, many of which end up on our dinner plates. Plastics have been known to block the digestive tract or pierced organs, resulting in death in some cases. Plastics have been discovered in animal stomachs, obstructing the need to eat and resulting in malnutrition.
The Fate Of Plastic In Our Ocean
Researchers are trying to figure out how plastic waste travels between the physical and biological matrices in the ocean and what happens to it (or reservoirs). “Lost at sea: Where is all the plastic?” was a pertinent question first posed by Richard Thompson in 2004. To answer this question, we need to consider not only the mechanisms of transport within the ocean, but also the mechanisms of transport into and out of the ocean. Atmospheric currents and wind, ocean currents, vertical movement in the ocean, marine animal migration, and trophic transfer are all examples of these processes.
Microplastics Found In The Deep Sea
According to a survey, the world’s deepest underwater trenches are becoming the “absolute drain” of plastic waste, resulting in contamination of wildlife even in these dark, remote parts of the globe. Microplastic ingestion by animals has been detected for the first time in the Mariana trench and five other regions with a depth of more than 6,000 meters, leading scientists to conclude that there are no marine environments left that are unaffected by plastic pollution.
Non-biodegradable substances in clothing, containers, and packaging move from household bins through dump sites and rivers to the oceans, where they gradually break down and fall to the sea bed, according to an article published in the Royal Society.
The impact of plastic in shallow waters has been well documented in academic journals and television shows, including David Attenborough’s Blue Earth. However, the review shows that the problem is far bigger than previously thought.
How Research Discovered Deep Sea Plastic
Xikun Song of Xiamen University, Xiaotong Peng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Sanya, and their colleagues sent a submersible crew to investigate plastic waste that had collected deep in a trench in the South China Sea. Previously identified debris ‘dumps’ in the trough contained up to 52,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer, including bags, bottles, and food wrappers.
At depths of 820–3,200 meters, the researchers found 33 pieces of plastic. According to a survey of the items, they included approximately 1,200 individual organisms representing 49 different species of bottom-dwelling organisms. Jellyfish polyps — a stage of an animal’s life cycle in which it is attached to a surface — and brachiopod juveniles were among the most common, but the team also discovered free-living creatures including deep-sea snails and parasitic flatworms.
These plastic dumps, according to the scientists, offer a haven for a number of sea-floor species. The consequences of this habitat expansion may have a cascading impact in the marine food chain. The complete paper, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, can be found here.
Long-Term Impact of Plastic Pollution
The consequences for deep-sea species are still unknown, but scientists speculate that they will face the same problems of a blocked digestive tract and decreased mobility as organisms at shallower depths. These species, on the other hand, may be more vulnerable because the trenches are food-scarce environments, causing scavengers and predators to consume whatever they may find.
Worryingly, new animals are being discovered in deep-sea trenches that have never been seen before in their natural state. This suggests that scientists don’t have any proof to compare them to. It is difficult to investigate and uncover the secrets of these new species, since there are no reports on them in their original state.
A Path Forward
According to scientists, more than 24 million tonnes of plastic penetrate marine environments each year, including our ocean. It will be difficult to get emissions far below this level. This is a complicated problem. Plastics reach the world from a variety of sources, as do the types of plastics we make, distribute, and find in nature. The habitats and species affected by pollution pollutants are complex, and as a result, solutions must be diverse as well. Plastic reduction, the development of a circular economy, enhanced waste management systems, innovation that results in new products and technology for prevention, as well as cleanup, outreach, and education are all examples of solutions we need. We will need everybody to collaborate, including the plastics industry, waste managers, the general public, scientists, and governments at all levels around the world.