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Ocean Plastic Pollution

Context: A new study estimates 170 trillion plastic particles, weighing about 2 million metric tons, are currently afloat in the world’s oceans.

Decoding the News

  • The study adds that this number could nearly triple by 2040 if no steps are taken to clean up the world’s oceans.
  • There were estimated 5 trillion plastic particles in the ocean in 2014. Within the next 10 years, the estimation is 170 trillion.
  • Most of these plastic particles found floating on the ocean’s surface are microplastics.

The Study

  • Methodology: Researchers analyzed surface-level plastic pollution data from nearly 12,000 ocean stations in six major marine regions, from 1979 to 2019. This was combined with data collected by them during their own expeditions.
  • They used computer modeling to estimate not only how much microplastic currently exists in the oceans but also how their concentration has varied over the years.
  • Findings: Between 1990 and 2005, the number of plastic particles more or less fluctuated, which could be due to the effective implementation of important policy measures.
    • Since 2005, the plastic production skyrocketed, and with more plastic there is more pollution. Old rules are not enough to thwart plastic pollution.
    • In absence of any drastic action about the issue, there will be a 2.6-fold increase in plastic flowing into aquatic environments by 2040.
Source of Plastic Pollution in Oceans
Source of Plastic Pollution in Oceans

Impact of Plastic Pollution in Oceans

  • Marine ecology: Plastic debris present in the oceans leads to ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species.
  • Food security: Oceans are one of the major sources of food for a large population. Plastics ingested by marine organisms can enter human body, affecting their health.
  • Economic impact: The income generated through marine tourism gets affected as plastics discourage visitors. Fishing income also gets drastically reduced.
  • Accelerate climate change: Plastic in the oceans interferes with the oceans capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change.

Limiting Plastic Pollution in Oceans

  • Global binding practices: There is an urgent need to implement a global measure to limit the production of single-use, throwaway plastic.
  • Effective waste management: Urban areas must implement better waste management practices so that plastic waste produced do not leave their territory.
  • Reduce chemical additives: Plastic producers must reduce chemical additives in plastic so that they do not harm ocean organism due to leaching.
  • Recycling policy: Producers must take more responsibility when it comes to recycling plastic waste generated. This will reduce the amount that is discarded.
    • Legally binding rules can be made commit industries to use 75% recycled plastic in any new product.

Microplastics in Oceans

  • Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that measure less than 5mm in diameter. They are especially harmful to the oceans as they do not easily break down into harmless molecules.
  • Microplastics adversely affect the health of marine organisms, which mistake plastic for food. They can trigger loss of biodiversity and threaten ecosystem balance.
  • Impact on Marine life
    • Health of marine organisms: Studies have detected microplastics in marine organisms, from phytoplankton to whales and dolphins, which have proven hazardous for them.
      • Microplastics absorb many hydrophobic compounds, such as DDT, PCBs and other industrial chemicals, and these chemicals can be released when ingested.
    • Carbon cycle: Phytoplanktons absorb atmospheric carbon and are eaten by zooplankton, whose carbon excretion sink to the sea floor in the form of faecal pellets and get mineralized without escaping into atmosphere.
      • Microplastics prevent the faecal pellets from sinking to the ocean floor, allowing carbon to be either ingested or emitted back into the atmosphere.

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