This manmade debris gets into the water in many ways. People often leave trash on beaches or throw it into the water from boats or offshore facilities. This debris is carried by storm drains, canals, or rivers.
Any kind of trash can get into the ocean—from glass bottles to aluminum cans to medical waste. The vast majority of marine debris, however, is plastic.
Plastic products can be very harmful to marine life. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. And many sea animals and birds have become strangled by the plastic rings used to hold six-packs of soda together.
Plastics do not biodegrade quickly. Ironically, some new biodegradable plastics might not break down in oceans at all. These products are designed to break down when they heat up in a landfill or compost pile. Cooler ocean temperatures prevent these products from truly degrading.
Instead, like many other types of plastic, they simply break down into tiny particles called microplastics. Microplastics are pieces of debris between 0.3 and 5 millimeters (0.01 to 0.20 inches) thick, no thicker than a grain of rice. One example of microplastics is “nurdles,” the manmade pellets of raw material used in making plastic products. These tiny pieces of plastic can collect in the stomachs of marine animals, interfering with digestion. When marine animals ingest nurdles, they can feel “full” although they are not getting nutrients. The animals are at risk of malnutrition and starvation.
Floating on the ocean’s surface, nurdles and other small plastic pieces can block the sun’s rays from reaching plants and algae that depend on the sun to create nutrients. When these organisms are threatened, the entire marine food web may be disturbed.
As plastics get smaller and smaller, they release chemicals. One of those chemicals can be bisphenol A (BPA). Bisphenol A can interfere with animals’ reproductive systems. Fish are especially at risk when exposed to bisphenol A. Exposed fish produce fewer healthy offspring.
Bisphenol A and other chemicals build up in the fish’s body through a process called bioaccumulation. Plants or algae may absorb bisphenol A through the water. A fish, already exposed to the chemical, ingests more bisphenol A when it eats the algae. Top predators such as sharks or dolphins, which eat the fish, accumulate the most chemicals.
A reduction in the fish population can impact human activity in the area. Fisheries shrink, weakening the area’s economy. Fish that are harvested may have a high amount of toxins or other marine debris in their system as a result of bioaccumulation. Some of these toxins, such as mercury or bisphenol A, may be harmful to people, putting consumers at risk.