Science Made Simple: Ocean Plastic

My name is Ryan and I love science. Join me as I try to make tough science not so confusing.

Follow along as I research the issues, untangle the mess, and figure out what you really need to know to help animals and the environment.


Today’s Topic: Ocean Plastic

Short Version: Buy a reusable water bottle and reusable canvas grocery bags instead of the plastic alternatives.

This week, we’ll take a look at how plastic in the ocean impacts the environment. I have found a few great articles on our topic that have been published in scientific journals that should help us get a better look at what is going on. Let’s make science simple!

sunsetConfusing Science
“The current plastic load in surface waters of the open ocean was estimated in the order of tens of thousands of tons… The abundance of nano-scale plastic particles has still not been quantified in the ocean…although available observations point to a significant abundance of microplastic particles in deep sediments…” (Cózar et al., 2014).

What That Really Means:
HUGE amounts of plastic trash are in the ocean. This plastic pollution gets into the ocean by washing down rivers and streams, blown by the wind, or simply dumped into the water. As the plastics like bottles, containers, and bags move around the ocean, they break up into smaller pieces, but do not break down all the way. Because these bits of plastic are so tiny, it is really hard to figure out how much is out there. Plastic can take centuries to decompose and until then, the small pieces will continue to pollute the ocean or sink to the ocean floor.


Confusing Science:
The literature on ingestion (and entanglement) of plastic items in marine debris is voluminous and often repetitive, and the widely reported environmental problems identified are global in character. These include: wounds (internal and external), suppurating skin lesions and ulcerating sores; blockage of digestive tract followed by satiation, starvation and general debilitation often leading to death; reduction in quality of life and reproductive capacity; drowning and limited predator avoidance; impairment of feeding capacity; and the possibility that plastic resin pellets may adsorb and concentrate potentially damaging toxic compounds from sea water (e.g. Gregory 1978, 1991; Laist 1997; Mato et al. 2001; see also the discussions in Oehlmann et al. 2009; Teuten et al. 2009)” (Gregory, 2009).

What That Really Means:
Plastic is really dangerous to animals that live in the ocean. Small pieces are often eaten, which can make animals sick or even kill them. Other types of plastic such as fishing line can become wrapped around flippers or fins, making it hard (or even impossible) to swim. Ocean animals need to swim to eat, get away from animals trying to eat them, and reproduce. Getting tangled in fishing lines or nets is often a death sentence.

Confusing Science:
“Though significant proportions of meso- and macroplastics may be stranding on coastlines (where some of it could be recovered), removal of microplastics, colonized by biota or mixed with organic debris, becomes economically and ecologically prohibitive, if not completely impractical to recover” (Eriksen et al., 2014).

What That Really Means:
Cleaning up plastic and trash on the beaches is incredibly helpful, but there’s more to the problem. The big pieces can be picked up, but there’s not a good way to remove the teeny tiny pieces that pollute the water and sand. Instead, we should focus on keeping plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place!

saveaturtle_bag_260pxWhat Can YOU DO?:  You can help the animals that live in the ocean by  using reusable water bottles and reusable canvas grocery bags instead of the plastic alternatives.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more as I try to make science easier to understand. Never stop learning,


 Have a topic you’d like me to explore? Post it in the comments!




Cózar, A. a., Echevarría, F., González-Gordillo, J. I., lrigoien, X., Úbeda, B., Hemández-León, S., & … Duarte, C. M. (2014). Plastic debris in the open ocean. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 111(28), 10239-10244.

Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. M., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., & Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. Plos ONE9(12), 1-15. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111913

Gregory, M. R. 1978 Accumulation and distribution of virgin plastic granules on New Zealand beaches. N. Z. J. Mar. Freshwater Res. 12, 399-414.

Gregory, M. R. (2009). Environmental Implications of Plastic Debris in Marine Settings—Entanglement, Ingestion, Smothering, Hangers-On, Hitch-Hiking and Alien Invasions.Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, (1526). 2013. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0265.

Laist, D. W. 1997 Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Marine debris, sources, impacts, and solutions (eds J. M. Coe & D. B. Rogers), pp. 99-139. New York, NY: Springer-Verla

Mato, Y, Isobe, T., Takada, H., Kahnehiro, H., Ohtake, C. & Kaminuma, O. 2001 Plastic resin pellets as a transport medium for toxic chemicals in the marine environment. Environ. Sci. Technol. 35, 318-324. (doi:10.1021/ esOO 10498

Oehlmann, J. et al 2009 A critical analysis of the biological impacts of plasticizers on wildlife. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2047-2062. (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.02Teuten, E. L. et al. 2009 Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 2027-2045. (doi:10.1098/rstb. 2008.0284)

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