By: Sarah Hirschorn (Online Editor in Chief)
Global climate problems and the endangering of our world’s most valuable natural resources have been on the minds of many as the streets of every major city and local bodies of water are polluted with plastic.
The environmental impact of plastic waste across the world is grave as plastic bags, bottles and other continents continue to pile up around the world. Plastic pollution has become widely studied by climate scientists, activists, and others who want to understand how the accumulation of plastic is making a global irreversible impact.
Ms. Byrne, an environmental science teacher at Sharon High says that plastic’s practicality has been emphasized for years. “Since World War II, plastic has become ubiquitous in our society. It’s cheap, versatile, and was viewed as a way to avoid the deforestation associated with paper products,” Byrne said.
“However, plastics are not biodegradable and persist in the environment for a very long time. As they are exposed to light and water, chemicals can leach out of them and contaminate soil and water,” Byrne added.
Byrne says the learning process about what plastic can and cannot do in our environment is a work in progress. “We are starting to learn more about how large plastics break down into microplastics, and that the concentrations of those microplastics in the ocean are much higher than we initially thought. Wildlife is harmed when they consume plastics, mistaking them for food,” Byrne said.
Senior Olivia Carson, who did her Global Competence Program Research Project on plastic pollution in the Mediterranean, says she is conscious of the impact plastic pollution has on our environment. “I’m definitely aware of how easy it is for plastic to end up in the ocean or other waterways, and the effects that plastic waste has on ecosystems, organisms, and people too,” Carson said.
“It’s due to a rise in single-use plastic use and accumulates in areas of stagnating or circulating currents. It comes in two forms: micro and macro plastic pollution. While macroplastics get more attention because their effects can be seen (trapping marine organisms, dirtying water and coastlines), microplastics are probably even more dangerous because they’re ingested by zooplankton at the base of the oceanic food chain, and from there they make their way up…into the bodies and tissues of larger organisms too, like fish, whales, sharks, birds, and humans,” Carson added.
One of the most apparent showcases of plastic pollution and the material’s accumulation is the great Garbage patch.
According to a plasticpollution.org article, “When The Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide,” written by Claire Le Guern, the population is currently faced with the most unprecedented, plastic waste tide in history. “The Great Garbage patch is two separate accumulations connected by a 6,000-mile marine litter “corridor” known as the North Pacific Convergence Zone (STCZ). As will be explained infra, the convergence zone is in itself another serious accumulator of traveling plastic debris,” Guern said.
“The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch floats between Japan and Hawaii; the Western Patch floats between Hawaii and California. The rotational pattern created by the North Pacific Gyre draws in waste material from as far as Asia to the USA. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris inward, trapping debris in higher concentrations in the calm center. Ocean currents carry debris from the East coast of Asia to the center, in less than a year, and from the Western US in about 5 years,” Guern added.
Guern adds that there is a common misconception about the garbage patch. “The name garbage patch has led many to believe that this area is a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items, such as bottles and other litter, akin to a literal blanket of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs. This is simply not true. While larger litter items can be found in this area, along with other debris such as derelict fishing nets, the largest mass of the debris is small bits of floatable plastic.”
Carson says there are also other places in the world where the floatable plastic pollution has built up and contaminated our drinking water. “There’s actually many garbage patches in the world’s oceans (the Pacific being the biggest and the most well-studied) because there are these big currents called gyres that spin in circles and plastic accumulates inside them.”
“The concentration of microplastics in the patches is super high, and plastic can stay in those places for years. During my project, I learned that the Mediterranean works in a similar way—because of the way the currents work, plastic from all over the world builds up there in particular,” Carson concluded.