Plastic milk jugs. Soda Cans. Balloons. Cigarette butts. What do these items all have in common with each other? They are sadly some of the mostly found marine debris items to be seen washed up on beaches or floating in the ocean. Even more frustrating is this is just to name a few! It’s no joke that our oceans are becoming more and more polluted every single day. Just recently we have had some storms that brought so much trash 26 miles across the San Pedro Channel to our Island. But how did all this trash get here? This happened due to some very strong down-slope winds known as the Santa Ana winds that originate from the inland part of California and end up affecting coastal southern California. These winds caused huge swells across our channel bringing in loads and loads of trash from the Los Angeles River.
Our beach isn’t the only beach that experiences marine debris. Worldwide thousands of beaches and parts of our oceans suffer from pollution and trash. Luckily many people work and volunteer to help keep our ocean clean and free from debris. But what happens to many items that don’t get saved from our oceans and beaches? Not only does our marine life become affected by this trash, but it can also take hundreds of years for it to decompose! Check out some of these statistics below.
It’s crazy to see from the chart above how long certain items can take to decompose. With all that being said, just keep in mind this friendly little reminder to help pick up trash on the ground whenever you see it, and maybe little by little we can all continue working together to make this world including our oceans a better place.
Here at CIMI, we’re seeing red! We’ve had two sudden invasions of bright red, shimmery, buoyant things just offshore in our coves. The first is pelagic red crabs, Pleuroncodes planipes, that swarmed northward from warmer waters as El Niño brought an unseasonable winter to the tropics. Can you guess what the second is? Just a few days after Valentine’s Day, heart-shaped Mylar balloons are showing up everywhere! Unfortunately, a gift to surprise a sweetheart for just one day can take many years to degrade in the ocean. So how long do other household objects take to break down in the sea? Check out the charts below.
As you can see, oil-based products take by far the longest to degrade, with fishing line, plastic bottles, and 6-pack plastic rings predicted to take as long as 600 years to break down fully. Keep in mind, we’ve only been using plastic for about 100 years at all!
Microplastics, Mega Problem!
Once these plastics are subjected to prolonged sunlight, waves, currents and tides, they are broken into tiny fragments thinner than a human hair, called microplastics. Being so small, these particles can easily enter the food chain through filter feeders such as shellfish. Many cosmetics companies also put small beads of plastic in products such as exfoliating soaps, until recent research reported that enough of these microbeads to coat 300 tennis courts were entering watersheds and oceans daily. These findings, combined with more recent research spotlighting the harmful effects of accumulation of microplastics in sediment, the water column, and the tissues and bodily fluids of marine animals, has led President Obama to sign a microbead ban, preventing these companies from using this ‘indestructible confetti’ in their products. Many plastics contain chemicals such as solvents and softeners, and could cause severe poisoning effects in marine food webs, including humans.
A Gyre Situation
Due to large-scale circular wind and current patterns called gyres, much of the ocean’s trash ends up concentrated in specific places. The largest of these is a giant “soup” of trash in the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii, known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (GPGP) or the “Pacific trash vortex.” A great majority of this trash is actually tiny micro plastics, making the water look cloudy in satellite imagery. Many of the larger items, including sneakers, electronics, and larger plastic items, may have sunk underneath the Texas-sized floating island.
Since the GPGP is so large and so far from any nation’s borders, no one government is willing or able to provide the funding and labor needed to clean it up. However, the scale of the problem has inspired many organizations and individuals to launch expeditions and brainstorm creative ideas for cleaning it up or preventing it from growing. Boyan Slat, a crafty 19-year-old from Holland, is currently collaborating with aerospace engineers to design a floating robot to collect the larger pieces of trash, while others propose introducing plastic-eating bacteria or other marine microbes to begin to break down the plastics of all sizes. In 2010, a team of explorers at Adventure Ecology built a 60-foot catamaran called the Plastiki using 12,500 recycled plastic bottles. The Plastiki‘s crew voyaged from California to Australia to raise awareness about the durability, usefulness, and permanence of used plastic products.
BOYAN SLAT’S BIG IDEA
Image Credit: The Ocean Cleanup (see link below)
What happens to unwanted items when they have passed their useful life? Their fate is up to you! Garbage that ends up in a landfill could sit for hundreds or thousands of years while it degrades slowly among other junk. A plastic bottle for example can sit in a landfill for a thousand years before it degrades and even then it never just disappears! Rainwater that falls on the bottle and the junk around it can collect water-soluble toxins and form a nasty liquid called leachate that if not properly managed can be harmful to ecosystems.
If instead the same bottle drifts into the ocean it could float indefinitely until it ends up in a place like the Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling gyre located between Hawaii, California, and Japan. Here our bottle will get caught in a swirling vortex limbo where it will be photodegraded by the sun. According to scientists, plastic bottles can break into smaller parts fairly quickly in the ocean with the sun’s help. The problem is that these smaller pieces never truly disappear from the water. Eventually they can make their way into increasingly larger animals the whole way up the food chain to us!
Now let’s imagine a more pleasing fate for our meager bottle. Say for example that plastic bottle is placed into a recycling receptacle by a clever human like you. Finally it has the chance for a productive second life and will see a much more exciting fate! The bottle will be washed, squished, melted, and turned into a useful product we can once again enjoy, like a kayak, or snorkel!
Photo Caption for below: Various beverage vessels and their estimated time to decompose in the environment according to the National Park Service.
We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.cimi.org for additional information. Happy Reading!