jellyEarlier this week, we learned about how our world’s connected watersheds can carry chemicals from land-based pollution all the way to our oceans. Today, we’ll use the same information to learn more about how plastic trash winds up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the world’s plastics aren’t recycled. They might go to landfills, but a significant amount isn’t disposed of properly. Just like the chemicals in a watershed, trash that’s thrown onto our streets, in our parks, or anywhere else on land eventually washes into sewers, which connect to our waterways. Months, or even years, later the trash travels through the watershed out to sea.

Once plastic debris reaches the ocean, wind and waves carry it to one of the world’s gyres—vast areas where ocean currents move in a circular pattern. After trash enters the gyres, it stays there. Plastics are unique because their chemical properties mean that they break into smaller and smaller pieces as they decay. In the gyres, there are so many tiny plastics that no one knows how to clean them up. Why are microscopic debris a problem? In the oceans, these little bits of plastic look a lot like the plankton that many marine animals eat. Even big plastic bags are dangerous, since they look a lot like tasty jellies to hungry sea turtles.

Countless birds, fishes and turtles die each year after mistakenly ingesting too much plastic, but people are affected, too. Plastic trash can absorb other toxic pollutants in the water before small marine animals eat the garbage. Small fishes eat these animals; bigger fishes eat the small fishes; eventually, the toxins that these animals have been consuming wind up on our plates when we eat the big fishes.

While marine debris can seem like an overwhelming issue, it doesn’t take much to solve the problem. If we dispose of our trash properly, the oceans won’t be treated like a landfill. Communities can pitch in by putting screens over storm drains to catch trash before it reaches the water. We can also support compostable products that replace plastics, or buy longer-lasting stuff that won’t need to be thrown away in a week. Some innovative schools, cities and countries are taking plastic out of the equation, making “Paper or plastic?” a thing of the past.

Posted by Meg Matthews, conservation