Plastics in the marine environment: the dark side of a modern gift

Jort Hammer, Michiel H S Kraak, John R Parsons
Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 2012, 220: 1-44
Plastics are cheap, strong, and durable and offer considerable benefits to humanity. They potentially can enhance the benefits that both medical and scientific technology will bestow to humankind. However, it has now been several decades since the use of plastics exploded, and we have evidence that our current approach to production, use, transport and disposal of plastic materials has caused, and is still causing serious effects on wildlife, and is not sustainable. Because of frequent inappropriate waste management practices, or irresponsible human behavior, large masses of plastic items have been released into the environment, and thereby have entered the world's oceans. Moreover, this process continues, and in some places is even increasing. Most plastic debris that now exists in the marine environment originated from ocean-based sources such as the fishing industry. Plastics accumulate in coastal areas, at the ocean surface and on the seabed. Because 70% of all plastics are known to eventually sink, it is suspected that ever increasing amounts of plastic items are accumulating in seabed sediments. Plastics do not biodegrade, although, under the influence of solar UV radiations, plastics do degrade and fragment into small particles, termed microplastics. Our oceans eventually serve as a sink for these small plastic particles and in one estimate, it is thought that 200,000 microplastics per km(2) of the ocean's surface commonly exist. The impact of plastic debris has been studied since the beginning of the 1960's. To date, more than 267 species in the marine environment are known to have been affected by plastic entanglement or ingestion. Marine mammals are among those species that are most affected by entanglement in plastic debris. By contrast, marine birds suffer the most from ingestion of plastics. Organisms can also be seriously absorbed by floating plastic debris, or the contaminants may derive from plastic additives that are leached to the environment. Recent studies emphasize the important role of microplastics as they are easily ingestible by small organisms, such as plankton species, and form a pathway for contaminants to enter the food web. Contaminants leached from plastics tend to bioaccumulate in those organisms that absorb them, and chemical concentrations are often higher at higher trophic levels. This causes a threat to the basis of every food web and can have serious and far-reaching effects, even on nonmarine species such as polar bears and humans, who consume marine-grown food. Therefore, resolving the plastic debris problem is important to human kind for two reasons: we are both creator, and victim of the plastic pollution problem. Solutions to the plastic debris problem can only be achieved through a combination of actions. Such actions include the following: Legislation against marine pollution by plastics must be enforced, recycling must be accentuated, alternatives (biodegradable) to current plastic products must be found, and clean-up of debris must proceed, if the marine plastic pollution problem is to eventually be resolved. Governments cannot accomplish this task on their own, and will need help and initiative from the public. Moreover, resolving this long-standing problem will require time, money, and energy from many individuals now living and those of future generations, if a safer and cleaner marine environment is to be achieved.

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