SAN FRANCISCO—(ENEWSPF)–December 12, 2014. A new study says the world’s ocean is awash in 5 trillion pieces of plastic — from tiny beads and toys to shopping bags and bottles — weighing more than 250,000 tons. One of the researchers said it’s the equivalent of two-liter plastic bottles stacked end-to-end in a column that stretches to the moon and back twice.
The study, published in PLOS One, is one of the largest attempts to date to quantify plastic litter in the world’s oceans. Much of the plastic ends up in giant swirling gyres like the Pacific Garbage Patch that spreads across some 276,000 square miles — an area larger than the state of Texas.
“Our oceans have become a dumping ground for the world’s plastic, and fish, sea turtles, seabirds and other wildlife are paying a terrible price,” said Emily Jeffers with the Center for Biological Diversity. “As disgusting and vast as this crisis is, we can dig our way out of this mess.”
The Center has petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to limit visible plastic pollution to zero and set strict limits on small plastic items in oceans and on beaches. Under the Clean Water Act, states must adopt water-quality standards recommended by the EPA and identify waters that don’t meet those standards. This can result in better monitoring, assessment and cleanup of plastic in our waters. States like California and Hawaii have already taken action to control trash under the Clean Water Act and plastic standards would cause other states to follow suit.
The Center also petitioned the EPA to designate remote, plastic-strewn Hawaiian Islands as a Superfund site to help initiate a federal cleanup. The EPA is now in the initial stages of reviewing the problem on one of the islands.
“Because ocean litter is such a staggering problem, the easiest thing to do is ignore it,” Jeffers said. “But while we turn our attention away, it only gets worse, and millions of animals are being hurt or killed.”
Plastic pollution has deadly consequences for at least 267 marine species, including endangered animals like Pacific loggerhead turtles, Steller sea lions and Hawaiian monk seals, which number around 1,000 in the wild.
Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, which can cause intestinal injury and death and transfers plastic up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals.
Sea turtles also mistake floating plastic garbage for food. While plastic bags are the most commonly ingested item, loggerhead sea turtles have been found with soft plastic, ropes, Styrofoam and monofilament lines in their stomachs. Ingestion of plastic can lead to blockage in the gut, ulceration, internal perforation and death.
Hundreds of thousands of seabirds ingest plastic every year. The plastic reduces the storage volume of their stomachs, meaning they consume less food and ultimately starve. Nearly all Laysan albatross chicks — 97.5 percent — have plastic pieces in their stomachs; their parents feed them plastic particles mistaken for food.
Marine mammals ingest and get tangled in plastic. Large amounts of plastic debris have been found in the habitat of endangered Hawaiian monk seals, including in areas that serve as pup nurseries. Entanglement deaths severely undermine recovery efforts of this seal, which is already on the brink of extinction. Entanglement in plastic debris, especially packing bands, has also led to injury and mortality in the endangered Steller sea lion. In 2008 two sperm whales were found stranded along the California coast with large amounts of fishing net scraps, rope and other plastic debris in their stomachs.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.