Plastic Debris on Marine Species
Marine litter has been a huge nuisance to marine life and especially plastic debris. Marine debris is defined as any solid material which finds its way into the waters. This marine debris or litter has many negative effects to aquatic life. Close to 80% of all marine debris is of plastic nature Van et al. 1(; Weisman)
According to the Greenpeace Report on Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, over 260 different species of marine life are known and documented to have been adversely affected by being trapped in marine litter or their ingestion Allsopp et al. 2.
These species include whales, seals, seabirds, sea lions, turtles and fish. Efforts should be developed and implemented to help alleviate these dangerous effects of plastic debris in order to preserve and protect marine life.
In a research conducted, the percentage of plastic in marine debris was calculated. It was found that in the North Eastern Atlantic, there were about 92% plastics in the sea bed marine debris. In the European Coasts, there were about 70% plastics in the sea floor marine debris and South Australia there were about 62% plastics in the beach marine debris. In South Africa, the amount of beach marine debris that was plastic in nature 88% and New Zealand, it is 75% Jose G.B 843.
These figures were aggregated from several researches done all over the world on marine debris, and the global trend is that between 60 — 80% of marine debris is plastic in nature.
Plastics are artificial compounds, most of which are built from polyesters, and usually have different shapes, colors and sizes depending on the compound and dyes. Plastic waste is of utmost importance since in all our daily activities, we come across plastic materials. The worst part of these plastic materials is that they are not easily decomposable or degradable. However, they easily break down into smaller particles and simpler compounds. Small plastics whose size is less than 5mm in length are referred to as micro plastics Arthur 2.
This process of breaking down into smaller particles is extremely slow and may take years and even decades. Even though these plastics may break down into smaller particles, they cannot be mineralized into their individual components such as carbon dioxide gas, water and the inorganic molecules. Plastics are best disposed into landfills and compost piles where the heat conditions and other conditions such as moisture and bacteria can help in the decomposition process. However, in the ocean, the conditions are less favourable. Water hinders the process of degradation of plastics Martins and Sobral 1()
Some of the common plastics are as in the table below.
Name of compound
Soda bottles (PET bottles)
Supermarket paper bags and plastic bottles
Packaging especially of food
Food container, plastic plates and cutlery
High impact polystyrene
Vending machine cups
Yoghurt cups, drinking straws and bottle caps
Compact discs (CDs), plastic eye glasses
Toothbrush bristles and fishing lines
Thermal insulation material
High density polyethylene
Milk bottles and detergent containers
Low density polyethylene
Floor tiles and outdoor furniture
As can be seen from the table above, these plastic materials are found in everyday materials which are used by people enjoying their time at the beach. In a study done in the Western North Atlantic Ocean on the size, mass and composition of plastic debris, it was found that the most common plastic debris was low and high density polyethylene (LDPE and HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), nylon 6 (PA6), polystyrene (PS), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Moret-Ferguson et al. 1874()
Plastic materials have also largely been used in the manufacture of fishing equipment due to their relatively cheap nature. Previously, natural fibers and metals were used to make fish nets and fishing lines. However, today, many of these are made using plastics.
The problem created by plastics also arises as a result of the huge number of people who visit beaches all over the world every other day. Popular beaches can see thousands of people visit the beach every day and this creates a massive problem in terms of waste management and this is one of the chief reasons why plastic debris in marine water is increasing.
Sources of plastic debris
The activities which act as sources of plastic debris can be categorized into four cardinal categories.
1. Tourism related litter — this is litter that is left by tourists visiting the beach. They include food packaging materials, food containers, plastic toys, beverage packaging materials, cigarette matter, etc.
2. Sewage-related waste — this type of waste gets into the sea through storm drains and combined sewer systems which carry both runoff water and sewage. When these are discharged into the oceans, rivers or lakes, they can introduce plastic debris into marine waters. Some of the plastic debris that can be introduced through this method includes food packaging materials, used condoms, plastic toys, beverage packaging materials, etc.
3. Fishing related waste — this type of waste is introduced as a result of the activities of fishing. These include when fishing nets or pieces of fishing nets and fishing lines are accidentally left in the waters or these pieces may break away and enter into the waters.
4. Wastes from boats and ships — this last category incorporates all the waste from people and ships and pieces of these ships breaking off and entering into the water. These may be accidentally or intentionally dumped into the sea.
A different classification of the sources of marine plastic debris divides them into two broad categories which are land-based sources and sea-based sources. Land-based sources are those where the debris is washed, blown or discharged into the sea from the land. The UN GESAMP (United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution) suggests that about 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources. Land-based sources can be as a result of five principal activities. First is storm water which is water that collects during heavy rains. Rain water can sweep off street litter into the storm drainage system and these are then discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans. The second activity is combined sewers which are sewers that carry both storm water and sewage. During heavy rains, these combined sewers have an enormous capacity that cannot be handled by the sewage treatment plant and may end up being discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans introducing these plastics. The other activities are littering and industrial activities which may introduce these plastics to the marine waters. Lastly, there is the disposal of solid waste in the sea. Sea barging was one of the widely used solid waste disposal methods and this introduces these plastic wastes to the sea.
The second category is sea-based sources. Here, there are four major activities which introduce the plastic debris either accidentally or deliberately. These sea-based methods are largely from the activities at the sea from boats and ship which are commercial fishing, recreational boating, and oil tankers, military and merchant vessels. Offshore oil and gas plants also lead to introduction of plastic debris into the ocean waters.
Plastic debris has also been thought to be as a result of alien space-crafts crashing into the sea during alien invasions. Though this can be easily dismissed by a simple argument that aliens do not exist, this possibility cannot be completely ignored.
Size and amount of plastic debris
There are basically three types of marine plastic debris.
1. Floating debris — this is the debris which is lighter than water and thus floats on the water. From the results of several studies, it was found that the amount of debris in most areas was between 0-10 items per square kilometer. However, in the English Channel, higher values were recorded in the range of 10-100+ items per square kilometer. Indonesia had the highest amount of debris at more than 4 items for every square meter. It is thought that this floating debris is mostly contributed by wastes from boats and ships and fishing expeditions.
2. Seafloor debris — this is the type of debris that is heavier than water and thus sinks to the floor of the sea. From several studies conducted in the waters around the world, it was found that waters in the Europe region had the second highest quantity of debris at the floor of the sea. The average was about 101,000 items per square kilometer. However, in this category, again Indonesia had the highest amount debris at little below seven hundred thousand items per square kilometer.
3. Shoreline debris – the last type of debris is that which can be found at the shoreline. This type of debris is usually found at the shoreline. Indonesia was the runner up here with about 29 items per meter while Sicily in Italy had the highest values with about 231 items per meter. In Indonesia, this shoreline litter covers about 90% of the upper shore.
How plastic debris affect marine life
There are two major ways in which detrimental effects to marine life occur. One is when these marine animals become snarled up in the marine debris and the other way is when they ingest the plastic wastes. Some of the materials which can cause the snarl up are pieces of fish lines or nets and rings which are used to bind six-pack beverages. These materials can cause the marine animals to drown or suffocate thus killing them. Death can also be an effect of the materials strangling the animals or starvation when the animal is trapped and unable to reach any food. These materials can also cause severe injuries to the animals. Entanglement is especially important to sea lions and seals. These animals are known to have a curious nature like that of the domestic cat and are thus intrigued by this plastic debris. In sea lions and seals, an entanglement rate of just under 8% of the population of these animals has been recorded. By estimate, about 58% of the total species of sea lions and seals are thought to have been entangled at one time in their lifetime Allsopp et al. 6.
These species include the Australian sea lion, Hawaiian monk seal and New Zealand fur seal.
Similarly, several species of whales, manatees, porpoises, seabirds, turtles, and dolphins have been found snarled up in plastic materials. This can be especially seen in manatees of which several animals have been freed by human divers from captivity in plastic debris. Some of these manatees were found to have scars or with their flipper injured or missing as they attempt to free themselves. In a research done on 78 sites using haul outs of Steller sea lions in British Columbia and the southeast of Alaska from the year 2000 to 2007, it was found that 386 individual lions were entangled in plastic debris. 49% of these were recorded to have debris around their necks. 1% of them had monofilament lines around their chest area. It was not possible to identify the material that had entangled these Steller sea lions in 77% of the animals and of the 33% (n=44) that was identifiable, the most common material that was entangled on the neck was packing bands (54%) and the second most common material was rubber bands (30%). Nets and ropes were tied at number three at 7% Raum-Suryan, Jemison and Pitcher 1489()
Fourteen of the entangled animals were branded in order to further investigate the effects these plastic debris. Out of these branded animals, one was found to be dead. Four were never seen again and are presumed dead while five were still entangled. Four others did not have their entanglements which were presumed to be ingested or to have disappeared through entering into the body through the skin Raum-Suryan, Jemison and Pitcher 1491.
From these results and these figures, we can see that plastic debris has serious adverse effects on these Steller sea lions and other marine animals.
The second way in which plastic debris causes deleterious effects on the marine animals is by ingestion. Ingestion is mostly seen in seabirds and sea turtles, though other species of animals have also been found to ingest plastic debris. These plastics are ingested since the preys confuse them for food or prey. The threat of ingestion is most detrimental in the situation where it blocks the alimentary canal or fills the stomach of the animal causing starvation and malnutrition. Death can also result. Plastic debris is passed to young ones of sea birds through regurgitation of food by the parent birds. Plastic debris, when ingested, also creates a false effect in the animals that they are satisfied and the animals are not able to put fat in their stores for hibernation, migration and reproduction.
Studies that have been conducted on sea turtles have shown that a large percentage, between 50 and 80% of the animals have in one time in their lives ingested plastic debris. In the research conducted concerning the snarl up of Steller sea lions, it was found that there were about 194 individual animals that had ingested plastic debris Raum-Suryan, Jemison and Pitcher 1488()
Another way in which plastics cause detrimental effects to marine life is because these plastics have the potential to attract pollutants or breakdown into pollutants of water. These pollutants include polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. This is an indirect impact of plastic debris. Another indirect impact is by the animals getting injured by these plastic debris either through ingestion or entanglement, they end up becoming weak and are thus easily preyed on by other carnivores in the waters.
In a research conducted, it was noted that plastic debris are sometimes used as nesting materials for the marine animals and thus leading to entanglement of young animals. The research was conducted on the Northern Gannet which is a large colonial seabird. Six nests of the birds were analyzed in Grassholm, Wales which is the third largest colony of gannets in the world. It was found that an average dry weight of plastic material used in nesting was about 469 grams. This was mostly synthetic fibers, netting material and packaging materials which constituted 83%, 15% and 2% respectively Votier et al. 169-70.
From these results, the researchers extrapolated that there is about 18.4 tons of plastic in the gannet nests in one single colony Votier et al. 170()
Possible solutions to the adverse effects of plastic debris
There is a need for measures to be taken to prevent and clean up plastic debris. These measures need to be done globally and inter-nation collaboration is important in the success of these measures. One example of this is the MARPOL which was created at the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. The MARPOL prevents ships from throwing waste overboard to the sea. It was enforced in 1998 and it is Annex V of the agreement which particularly deals with this. Annex V also requires that all ports which ships or boats dock at have garbage reception equipment and facilities for marine vehicles The Department of the Environment 8.
As of the month of April, 2005, one hundred and twenty two countries had signed the Annex V of the MARPOL. Ships from these nations which ratified the MARPOL are required to follow these regulations at all times while ships from the nations which have not ratified the MARPOL are expected to follow the regulations when they enter the waters of signatory countries Allsopp et al. 33()
Though the MARPOL agreement is currently in force, it is found that it is still greatly ignored and dumping of ship waste overboard is still on the rise. Currently, the rate of ship waste dumping stands at 6.5 million tons per year. However, this amount is thought to have been reduced by the enactment of the MARPOL regulations Allsopp et al. 33()
The Cartagena Convention came into being in the Caribbean in the year 1987 during the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region. The Cartagena Convention in the Caribbean was enacted to curb both sea-based and land-based sources of marine debris. Many countries of the Caribbean are not signatory countries of the MARPOL agreement since they lack the facilities of waste reception which are a requirement of the MARPOL.
The Barcelona Convention was formulated in the year 1976 which governs the Mediterranean region. It was formed during the Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution which is a UNEP programme. This convention governs litter from land-based sources. In European Union (EU) countries, there is the European Marine Strategy whose main purpose was to completely eliminate illegal discharge of marine debris by the year 2010. The EU also directed that all ports must have reception facilities for waste generated on ships and any residues of cargo that need to be disposed of.
By following all these conventions to the letter, it will be very easy to enforce and regulate against disposal of waste into the sea from both land-based and sea-based sources. However, enforcing laws in the sea can be quite difficult since it is not that easy to check whether they are being followed. One of the key reasons for this is that it is very expensive and unrealistic to have guards to patrol the waters at regular intervals to ensure laws are being followed. Secondly, most marine waste that is thrown overboard sinks to the sea bed and is therefore not easily spotted.
The second method of controlling marine debris is clean up. Clean up should be a joint effort between local authorities in charge of beaches and maritime waters, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), volunteers and the general public. However, clean ups can be quite expensive too. In 1998, a total of about 6 million dollars was spent in clean ups in 64 local communities along the North Sea. However, clean ups are the most effective way of controlling and removing plastic marine debris. As a result of clean ups, about 195 tons of derelict fishing gear was removed from the Northwestern Hawaiian Island according to a research published in the year 2003.
In Korea, it was felt that the coastline was lined with floating and submerged debris and a task force was formed to develop prevention equipment. This piece of equipment was to curb the land-based sources of debris. The equipment was designed like to containment around an oil rig. The floating debris is removed with the tension force created by this equipment. Deep water survey equipment has also been developed to check for marine debris. This equipment uses side sonar scans (SSS) technology. This equipment is used to check for marine debris. There has also been the development of retrieval equipment which was designed by crews on a vessel. The equipment consists of an L-type steels pipe with hooks at the end. After the removal of the debris, it needs to be sorted, recycled or treated. An intricate system of salt, sludge and other contaminants are used to treat the waste through such methods as sorting, cutting, separation of lead, crushing to reduce size, then the use of salt and sludge to clean the waste Jung et al. 1524-28()
All these are some of the efforts that have been undertaken in Korea to resolve the situation of marine debris. It is also proposed that these efforts should be combined with others to make the marine debris management program successful. These include a marine waste buyback program, clean ups and removal of marine debris from the seabed Jung et al. 1524()
Again, in Korea, the government introduced a program that incentivized fishermen to collect debris in the coastal waters. This program has helped in reducing the amount of debris by about 10-20% which is 66,000 tons of debris Dong-Oh 415()
Public education is also another important strategy in the removal of plastic debris. By educating the public on the harmful effects of the debris, this can instigate good habits in the beach goers. Public education should be coupled with the provision of sufficient refuse bins. In 2004, the Australian government started a campaign dubbed ‘keep the sea plastic free’ which was targeted at public education on proper disposal of plastics.
The zero waste strategy that was developed for the UK group known as DEMOS by Robin Murray is an all in one programme which deals with reduction of waste generate, reuse and recycling, education of the public, taking responsibility of actions and taxation of waste. This strategy can also help a lot in the control of plastic debris in the marine waters.
Marine debris is known to have many dangerous effects on marine animals and moreover, plastic debris. Some are direct and others indirect. The direct effects are as a result of ingestion of the debris or entanglement of animals in the debris. Indirect effects include the use of plastic materials in nesting of seabirds and attracting dangerous pollutants. This plastic debris comes from various sources which are land-based or sea-based sources.
There are various regulations that have been developed to curb the nuisance of plastic debris. However, the regulations alone are not sufficient for the effective management. Other methods such as public education, adoption of the zero waste strategy, clean ups, waste buyback programs and development of deep water survey equipment, retrieval and removal equipment.
Allsopp, Michelle, et al. Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans. Amsterdam: Greenpeace International, 2006. Print.
Arthur, Courtney. Plastic Marine Debris: An in-Depth Look2010. Print.
Dong-Oh, Cho. “The Incentive Program for Fishermen to Collect Marine Debris in Korea.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 58.3 (2009): 415-17. Print.
Jose G.B, Derraik. “The Pollution of the Marine Environment by Plastic Debris: A Review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 44.9 (2002): 842-52. Print.
Jung, Rho-Taek, et al. “Practical Engineering Approaches and Infrastructure to Address the Problem of Marine Debris in Korea.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 60.9 (2010): 1523-32. Print.
Martins, J., and P. Sobral. “Plastic Marine Debris on the Portuguese Coastline: A Matter of Size?” Marine Pollution Bulletin.0. Print.
Moret-Ferguson, Skye, et al. “The Size, Mass, and Composition of Plastic Debris in the Western North Atlantic Ocean.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 60.10 (2010): 1873-78. Print.
Raum-Suryan, Kimberly L., Lauri A. Jemison, and Kenneth W. Pitcher. “Entanglement of Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias Jubatus) in Marine Debris: Identifying Causes and Finding Solutions.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 58.10 (2009): 1487-95. Print.
The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Impacts of Plastic Debris on Australian Marine Wildlife2009. Print.
Van, Almira, et al. “Persistent Organic Pollutants in Plastic Marine Debris Found on Beaches in San Diego, California.” Chemosphere.0. Print.
Votier, Stephen C., et al. “The Use of Plastic Debris as Nesting Material by a Colonial Seabird and Associated Entanglement Mortality.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 62.1 (2011): 168-72. Print.
Weisman, A. The World without Us. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007. Print.
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