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Earth's Oceans In BIG Trouble - Massive Plastic Pollution

Updated on December 7, 2009
Human beings are turning Earth's oceans into plastic wastelands, destroying wildlife, contaminating nature's food chain, and ruining the beauty of our planet.
Human beings are turning Earth's oceans into plastic wastelands, destroying wildlife, contaminating nature's food chain, and ruining the beauty of our planet.

The most critical water pollution crisis of our time stands before us. Meanwhile, mainstream news media parade rich, drunk celebrities as high-priority news.

While prime-time TV booms with Hollywood gossip, vast expanses of the world’s oceans have turned into massive sewers of plastic waste. Areas of water the size of whole states are currently churning with synthetic trash that does NOT go away. Pristine seas have become quagmires of human –made garbage. The birthing pool of all life as we know it is now severely polluted.

A jar of seawater from some locations reminds you of a snow globe. When you shake the jar, plastic flakes and plastic particles swirl in high concentration—evidence of a deadly trash soup that tricks sea life into eating it. Such seawater samples offer only miniature glimpses of what goes on large-scale beneath the world’s ocean surfaces. Most shocking, a number of people have known about this for over twenty years.

Massive ocean pollution is NOT new—knowledge about it is subdued and underplayed in popular news casting. Avoidance and denial dominate. Consequently, most people still do not seem to grasp the enormity of the problem. Many people who do grasp the problem still do not seem to get it completely. The situation is grave, and it only gets graver.

Large-scale ocean pollution is ruining the natural beauty of scenic beaches.
Large-scale ocean pollution is ruining the natural beauty of scenic beaches.

Real Eyewitness Reports

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific Ocean in a raft, finding no sign of human presence over much of this vast expanse of water. Twenty-three years later in 1970, he completed a similar voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, finding human litter along every kilometer of his journey. [Connor and O’Dell/ENVIRONMENT/Jan-Feb 1988/vol30/issue 1/p 16]

In 1997, Charles Moore witnessed how much worse the situation had gotten after Heyerdahl. Moore vividly described his own experiences in a 2003 magazine article. [Trashed/NATURAL HISTORY/Nov 2003/vol 112/issue 9/p 46-51]

His amazement is best conveyed by his own words:

"I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita [Moore’s boat] was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments."

A mere fifty years!

This is all the time it required for humankind to convert naturally clear oceanscapes into synthetically cluttered plasticscapes.

Moore’s shock over his 1997 colossal garbage discovery led him to create the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. During the year Moore wrote his article in NATURAL HISTORY (2003), an oceanographer named Curtis Ebbesmeyer estimated the area of Pacific water nearly covered with floating plastic debris to be roughly the size of Texas. A 2007 estimate put the figure at TWICE the size of Texas. [McLaughlin/AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER/Apr 2008/vol7/issue4/p 201]

I have read articles on the internet this year (2009) that report immensely larger figures—from the size of the United States to twice the size of the United States.


Sources Of Confusion

I suspect that some writers might be unclear about the SPECIFIC area of GREATEST density of plastic debris, confusing this with the WHOLE area over which plastic debris exists in VARYING densities. My understanding is that there are large ocean sinks of trash, and within these large sinks there are more concentrated patches of trash.

The whole ocean area where plastic debris tends to accumulate is called an oceanic gyre - generally the high-pressure, central, deepest-water area over which air circulates in a mammoth vortex that acts as a huge trash corral. Within this huge trash corral, more densely cluttered trash patches exist.

Charles Moore made his infamous trash discovery in a particular patch of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. He traveled across the most concentrated area of the garbage (now twice the size of Texas). Although Moore seems to concentrate his current research in this area, he confidently points out, “Half the world’s oceans are accumulators—these high-pressure gyres that bring stuff into themselves. And every single one of them is full of plastic.” [Doucette/ROLLING STONE/10-29-2009/issue 1090/p 54-57]

An area of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre known as the "eastern garbage patch" or "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" contains ten million tons of waste.
An area of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre known as the "eastern garbage patch" or "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" contains ten million tons of waste.

Basics Of Horrific Plastic

  • A fourth of the Earth’s surface area has become an accumulator of floating plastic debris.
  • Plastic debris accumulating in Earth’s oceans includes plastic bags, nets, ropes, bottles, beverage six-pack holders, motor-oil jugs, diapers, toys, razors, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, packing and shipping materials, fishing gear, other convenience products, and raw plastic.
  • Human beings manufacture 300 million NEW TONS of plastic EACH YEAR, much of which becomes disposable single-use products.
  • Only 4% of plastics are recycled.
  • In the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, for every pound of naturally occurring plankton—one of Earth’s most prolific and abundant organisms—there are six pounds of floating plastic.
  • Most plastics in common use do NOT biodegrade—they merely break down into tiny pieces, then into plastic molecules, which are still impossible digest, even by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented (jellyfish).
  • Floating plastic fragments accumulate toxic chemicals such as DDT and PCB’s in concentrations as high as a million times greater than surrounding seawater.
  • Currently there is no practical method to clean up the macroscopic or the microscopic graveyard of plastic floating in Earth’s oceans.

A human is overshadowed by a large entanglement of humankind's waste.
A human is overshadowed by a large entanglement of humankind's waste.

Plastic Contaminates And Kills

Civilization as we know it could not exist without plastic. The convenience offered by plastic makes life thrilling. Therein lies the rub—plastic is also life killing.

Plastic debris in Earth’s oceans kills millions of sea birds and tens of thousands of sea mammals every year. These animals get entangled and drown, they get snared and choke to death, or they mistake plastic debris for food and starve to death.

Sea birds voraciously eat plastic. Fish, turtles, whales and dolphins also ingest plastic.

Bottle caps and other plastic objects inside the decomposing carcass of a Laysan albatross reveals how plastic kills by trickery.
Bottle caps and other plastic objects inside the decomposing carcass of a Laysan albatross reveals how plastic kills by trickery.

Even Worse

There is something even more insidious and potentially more catastrophic than entanglement or starvation by plastic—the looming threat of micro-plastic contaminating the entire food chain. In other words, the whole web of life could become plasticized.

Consumer products use plastic polymers that are indigestible by any known organism. Even when these polymers reduce to single molecules of plastic, no living organism on Earth can digest them. Single plastic molecules must degrade further by sunlight or by slow oxidative breakdown before nature can recycle their constituents into the building blocks of life.

Five hundred years or more is the current estimate of how long plastics require to degrade in our oceans. Meanwhile, plastic degrades life itself. Even the longest lifespan cannot compete with plastic’s timeline of decay.

Considering that tiny plastic particles can concentrate and transport toxic chemicals within ocean environments, we must fear that some of the most toxic pollutants known might be making their ways into the human body through seafood. We eat sea creatures that eat our toxic plastic waste.

Without realizing it, then, human beings are eating their own shit.



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    • William R. Wilson profile image

      William R. Wilson 7 years ago from Knoxville, TN

      Truly scary stuff. I've been writing about global warming lately but this sort of thing could be much worse.

      This is a nicely done hub - I'm looking forward to more from you.

    • Robert Kernodle profile image

      Robert Kernodle 7 years ago


      Yes, scary stuff, but obviously enough people are not scared enough. We are habituated to plastic-- a substance that lasts longer than the FUNCTION of its products. This is totally contrary to nature's way, whose substances do NOT outlast the FUNCTION of those substances.

      Imagine a skeleton that lasted for 500 years with flesh and organs that only lasted a year. Earth does not work this way, yet human arrogance to keep THINGS as long as possible ruins the natural rhythms of creation and destruction that enable QUALITY life to exist within its given windows of being.

      If the functionality of plastic products lasted even a fraction of plastic's 500-year decay timeline, then Earth would be better off. But no, greed takes center stage as always. Design to fail, so that we can make more money off the next sale of what people need. People need functionality for 500 years, NOT the substance whose functionality dies in, say, a few years. It's ridiculous!

      As for global warming caused by human beings, I question it. I believe that a more immediate, tangibly provable crisis exists in massive ocean pollution. This is where our attention and our research dollars need to be NOW.


    • profile image

      Carl 7 years ago

      We were supposedly put here to take care of the Earth and its creatures. Is this how we do it? What a shame.

    • Robert Kernodle profile image

      Robert Kernodle 7 years ago

      Just a comment here about the ad content of this hub, over which I have NO control.

      I find the ads for plastic products very conflicting with the theme of this hub, which is a genuine concern for ALTERNATIVES to plastic that WILL NOT POLLUTE, because they BIODEGRADE.

      I would like to see ads for biodegradabel plastic, NOT more of the same. I apologize for the generic treatment of ad selections. Again, I cannot control this, as I currently understand things here at hubpages.

      Robert (the author of this hub)

    • rebekahELLE profile image

      rebekahELLE 7 years ago from Tampa Bay

      Robert, such an informative article here that clearly defines the effects of plastic usage. I remember reading about the huge oceanic garbage gyre in the Pacific~ it's truly alarming.

      I hope your article receives many views and can help others understand the severity of this issue. I have personally cut down drastically on plastic use and recycle, but the real problem already exists to such a degree that people become numb and apathetic. It's very sad what countries now focus on. Celebrities and wanna be celebrites that are overpaid getting more attention than the issues that are seriously important.

      Keep up the good work. :]

    • Robert Kernodle profile image

      Robert Kernodle 7 years ago


      The problem with this ocean plastic problem is that most people do NOT travel on expanses of water to see the water, let alone the plastic that has come to dominate the water.

      Most people can only read about the problem. If they have not read about it yet, then they do not know about it. By the time this has a physically destructive effect at a local scale, then it will be too late.

      I am very intelligent and in tune, but I was NOT very in tune to this SPECIFIC breadth of the plastic problem. I am only now tuning in. I have been recycling for years, but never put it together that THIS is why.

      News media should be ashamed. Today's news reporting could be the downfall of our civilization.


    • JasonPLittleton profile image

      JasonPLittleton 5 years ago

      Plastic pollution must be stopped ASAP.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 5 years ago from Arizona

      I new the floating trash islands were bad, but not this bad. I guess what they say is true, ignorance is bliss. The public has no concept of the reality and severity of this issue. Like you said, they are too busy watching the drunk celebrities on the news. Maybe if a drunk celebrity wrecked their yacht into a massive pile of trash someone would notice! Seriously though, it will likely take a serious event like a boat crash to get people to pay attention to this issue. Very informative hub. Thanks for posting!

    • profile image

      Elisangel777 5 years ago

      So what about starting a world wide actions among the ones that start to be aware of how big problem this is....iwent to the foodshop today and had in mind not buying any products that was packed in plastic and i was schocked because i looked with new eyes and almost everything is packed in plastic...even if i want to buy fruit there was only plastic to put the fruit in.....If we started a kampanje that people refused to bring the plastic home so the take it of and leave it in the shop....if many enough people do that ...often enogh it will get attention and then hopefully we can change this...We had glassbottles for water and limonade before ...and thre is so many products pacjked in plastic that dont need to be at all...... And thank u for posting this ...i am still chocked.

    • profile image

      Rusimn 4 years ago

      So sad anmal are dead

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