The plastisphere, a new ecological regime of the oceans defined by humans dumping plastic into the oceans, has the potential to dramatically remake water life.
About 245 million tons of plastic is produced annually around the world, according to industry estimates. That represents 70 pounds of plastic annually for each of the 7.1 billion people on the planet, scientists say.
The waste gathers in vast oval-shaped ocean “garbage patches” formed by converging currents and winds. Once trapped in these cyclonic dead zones, plastic particles may persist for centuries.
The physiological effects of plastic debris on the fish, birds, turtles and marine mammals that ingest it are well-documented: clogged intestines, restricted movement, suffocation, loss of vital nutrients, starvation.
The effects of the plastisphere are only beginning to be understood.
Edward Carpenter, a professor of microbial ecology at San Francisco State University, first reported that microbes could attach themselves to plastic particles adrift at sea in 1972. He observed that these particles enabled the growth of algae and probably bacteria and speculated that hazardous chemicals showing up in ocean animals may have leached out of bits of plastic.
Carpenter’s discovery went largely unnoticed for decades. But now, the scientific effort to understand how the plastisphere influences the ocean environment has become a vibrant and growing field of study. From Woods Hole to the University of Hawaii, scientists are collecting seawater and marine life so they can analyze the types, sizes and chemical compositions of the plastic fragments they contain. Their findings are shedding new light on the ramifications of humanity’s addiction to plastic.
“We’re changing the basic rhythms of life in the world’s oceans, and we need to understand the consequences of that,” said marine biologist Miriam Goldstein, who earned her doctorate at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography by studying plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California.