Going Green

The plastic plague: Can our oceans be saved from environmental ruin?

Story highlights

An estimated eight million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year

There will be more plastic than fish in oceans by 2050, experts say

CNN  — 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has become the stuff of legend. This hotspot of marine waste, created by the spiral currents of the North Pacific Gyre, has been described as a floating trash island the size of Russia.

But when filmmaker Jo Ruxton visited the location, she found clear blue water, and a deep-rooted problem.

Location and currents of the North Pacific Gyre.

“If you were diving, it looked like you had just jumped out of a plane,” says Ruxton. “But our nets were coming up completely choked with plastic pieces.”

The pieces were small enough to mingle with plankton, the tiny organisms at the base of the food web that support many fish and whale species. Researchers have found 750,000 microplastic pieces per square kilometer in the Garbage Patch, and the marine life is riddled with them.

“This was much more insidious than a huge mountain of trash which could be physically removed,” says Ruxton. “You can’t remove all the tiny pieces.”

Rising tide

Ruxton visited the site while producing the film “A Plastic Ocean,” in association with NGO Plastic Oceans, which documents the impact of half a century of rampant plastic pollution.

Around eight million tons of plastic enter the marine environment each year, and the figure is set to rise. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that 311 million tons of plastic were produced in 2014, which will double within 20 years, and projects that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

mccarthur graphic

Plastic is a remarkably durable material, with a potential lifespan of centuries. It does not biodegrade, but photodegrades under sunlight, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, which attract toxins and heavy metals as they travel on the tides. Plastic is pulled together in the powerful, circling currents of gyres, but it is also found in Arctic ice, washing up on remote islands, and infesting tourist destinations.

emily smith going green spc_00001706.jpg
Living without plastic is harder than you think
03:01 - Source: CNN

Ruxton’s crew visited dozens of locations without escaping the plastic plague. They found it covering the Mediterranean Sea bed, the shorelines of Bermuda, and Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, a World Heritage site that has been severely affected.

“We kept coming across dead chicks,” Ruxton recalls of Howe Island. “We opened 10 of their stomachs which were so full of plastic they were swollen … These birds were dying of starvation with their stomachs bulging full.”

But the most disturbing find was on the South Pacific island of Tuvalu.

Health impact

Tuvalu was once a pristine beauty spot. But the island lacks the infrastructure to dispose of the plastic it imports, which has become a serious hazard for the local population.

“People were just throwing plastic outside,” says Ruxton. “They were drowning in the stuff, and trying to burn it. There was a constant pall of black smoke, and people were always exposed to the gases that come out when you burn plastic, including two very scary ones that have been linked to cancer, dioxins and furans.”

From a group of 30 islanders featured in the film, five had cancer and two have died in the last 18 months, Ruxton says. She is raising funds to research the health impact of burning plastic.

Plastic waste in Tuvalu.

The team is also studying the effects of ingesting seaborne plastic through a partnership with toxicology specialists at London’s Brunel University. Studies have shown a quarter of food fish sold at markets in California and Indonesia contain plastic, and although this has not yet resulted in public health warnings, tests have shown ingestion can cause tumors in lab animals.

Californian oceanographer Captain Charles J. Moore, who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and studies the impact of seaborne plastic, feels the “jury is still out” on the effects of ingestion on human health. But he believes our exposure is rapidly increasing, particularly through the spread of microplastics.

“Plastic is in the air we breathe, it’s become part of the soil and the animal kingdom,” says Moore. “We’re becoming plastic people.”

Counting the cost

Moore believes we do not fully comprehend the damage caused by plastic pollution, largely as the gyres where it collects have been ignored.