Plastic debris in the ocean is a global problem that continues to worsen. While as much as 1.6 billion pounds of plastic end up in the ocean every year, plastic does not biodegrade, meaning that the plastic that ends up in the ocean remains there indefinitely. This poses a threat to marine life in several ways.
For larger animals, colorful or shiny plastic items can be mistaken for prey, like fish and squid, and are eaten by seabirds, marine mammals, fish and sea turtles. Death can come quickly when the plastic damages the digestive system or animals may starve when they feel full but have stomachs full of man-made objects that don’t digest and have no nutritional value. Animals can also become entangled in plastic debris and become injured or drown.
Much of the plastic in the ocean is in the form of microdebris, or pieces of plastic that have been broken apart by sunlight and wave action to a size of 5mm or less. This microdebris outnumbers zooplankton in some areas of the globe by as much as 6 to 1. Since animals that feed on plankton do so unselectively, this plastic pollution has become a troubling part of the oceanic food chain. To make matters even worse, plastic tends to sop up dangerous toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT and endocrine disruptors like Bisphenol A, fire retardants and phthalates—chemicals that bioaccumulate, or build up, in larger animals and that can end up in the seafood we eat.
In recent years researchers have discovered large expanses of the ocean known as gyres that have effectively become “garbage patches” as swirling sea currents accumulate astonishing volumes of trash from faraway coasts. Oceana supports our partners that are working to remedy this emergent threat to marine life everywhere.