OCEAN PLASTICS POLLUTION:
A Global Tragedy for Our Oceans and Sea Life
Plastic never goes away. And it’s increasingly finding its way into our oceans and onto our beaches. In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments — like grocery bags, straws and soda bottles — are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.
Today billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences making up about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.
Plastics pollution has a direct and deadly effect on wildlife. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. Endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among nearly 300 species that eat and get caught in plastic litter.
It’s time to get at the root of this ocean crisis. The Center has petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating plastics as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act — a crucial first step in reducing the amount of plastic littering the oceans. We've also petitioned to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a Superfund site. Read more about our campaign.
We need your help to get the EPA to do the right thing. Please take action today by signing our petition — and also, please sign up to get our email alerts.
THE PLASTIC PROBLEM
We're surrounded by plastic. Think about every piece you touch in a single day: grocery bags, food containers, coffee cup lids, drink bottles, straws for juice boxes — the list goes on and on. Plastic may be convenient, but its success carries a steep price.
In the first decade of this century, we made more plastic than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. And every year, billions of pounds of plastic end up in the world’s oceans.
Most ocean pollution starts out on land and is carried by wind and rain to the sea. Once in the water, there is a near-continuous accumulation of waste. Plastic is so durable that the EPA reports “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”
Due to its low density, plastic waste is readily transported long distances from source areas and concentrates in gyres, systems of rotating ocean currents. The North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is twice the size of Texas (and growing) and consists mostly of small plastic particles suspended at, or just below, the surface, where fish and other animals mistake the particles for food.
In the Garbage Patch, plastic outnumbers fish food like zooplankton six to one. The Garbage Patch is only one of five such convergence zones, which in total cover 40 percent of the ocean.
A HEAVY TOLL ON WILDLIFE
Thousands of animals, from small finches to great white sharks, die grisly deaths from eating and getting caught in plastic:
- 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; even if their organs remain intact, turtles may suffer from false sensations of satiation and slow or halt reproduction.
- Hundreds of thousands of seabirds ingest plastic every year. Plastic ingestion reduces the storage volume of the stomach, causing birds to 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. Based on the amount of plastic found in seabird stomachs, the amount of garbage in our oceans has rapidly increased in the past 40 years.
- 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 are severely undermining recovery efforts of this seal, which is already on the brink of extinction. Entanglement in plastic debris has also led to injury and mortality in the endangered Steller sea lion, with packing bands the most common entangling material. 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 EPA MUST ACT NOW
Plastic pollution doesn’t just hurt marine species. It’s also harmful to people.
As plastic debris floats in the seawater, it absorbs dangerous pollutants like PCBs, DDT and PAH. These chemicals are highly toxic and have a wide range of chronic effects, including endocrine disruption and cancer-causing mutations. The concentration of PCBs in plastics floating in the ocean has been documented as 100,000 to 1 million times that of surrounding waters. When animals eat these plastic pieces, the toxins are absorbed into their body and passed up the food chain.
As plastics break apart in the ocean, they also release potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), which can then enter the food web. When fish and other marine species mistake the plastic items for food, they ingest the particles and pass toxic chemicals through the food chain and ultimately to our dinner plates.
Plastic pollution affects our economy, costing us untold dollars spent in beach cleanups, tourism losses and damages to fishing and aquaculture industries. Beaches and oceans have turned into landfills. Prime tourist destinations are now littered with garbage. Kamilo Beach, in a remote corner of Hawaii, is now known as “Plastic Beach” for the tons of plastic debris that accumulates on its shores.
Plastic pollution in our oceans is endangering marine life and ecosystems, so the Center for Biological Diversity is tackling the problem.
In August 2012, the Center petitioned the EPA asking the government to regulate plastics as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act is the nation’s strongest law protecting water quality, and we’re using the tools provided by this law to stop plastic pollution. Recognition of plastic pollution under the Clean Water Act will enable states to develop water-quality standards to finally begin curbing the amount of plastic trash dumped on our beaches and in our oceans.
Four months later, we petitioned the EPA again — this time requesting that the agency designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a Superfund site. This area includes the U.S. portion of the enormous Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of litter in the Pacific Ocean larger than the state of Texas. To address this plastic pollution disaster, our petition calls on the federal government to gather data and assess the nature and extent of the plastic pollution in one of the areas
most afflicted by it.
The next year, the EPA responded to both our petitions in the same month: On November 6, 2013, it pledged to take steps to cut plastic pollution in oceans, improve monitoring and conduct a scientific review of the human-health effects of eating fish that have ingested plastics and other pollution. And on November 18 the agency agreed to take a historic first step toward classifying a tiny Hawaiian coral island, Tern Island, as a Superfund site because of hazards posed by plastic pollution.