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Whither plastics and whither humanity?

Friday, October 24, 2008

By Nneka Leiba, MPH and Olga Naidenko, PhD

Trash-Beach_Los-Angeles.jpg No corner of the planet, however remote, is now free from synthetic chemical contaminants. Especially plastic. Big. Small. In every color. In every shape. Everywhere. We use it and discard it, seldom pausing to think what happens to all the plastic debris tossed on pavements, blown from open landfills and dumped directly into the rivers and off the coast.

Nowhere is this problem as desperate and distressing as in the oceans, which end up as dumps for all the plastic trash the modern world produces. As described by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, non-biodegradable plastic travels over vast distances and accumulates on beaches and in the ocean depths.

In the central Pacific Ocean, circulating currents known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre have gathered tons of plastic into "the great Pacific garbage patch." This human-made island twice the size of the state of Texas, is composed of such large quantities of plastic debris that it outweighs zooplankton, the microscopic backbone of the marine ecosystem, by six to one.

Fish, seabirds, turtles and other marine wildlife often consume plastic debris or become entangled in it, suffering injury as they try to escape or dying in the man-made maze. Ingested plastic may also release harmful toxicants, such as plastic additives and pesticide residues. Many of these chemicals accumulate in the tissues of marine animals and plants and end up in the human food chain.