The Plastic Sea

Swirling in the Central and North Pacific Ocean is a mass of debris the size of Africa. Scientists have dubbed this mass, over which no country has authority or responsibility, the “Synthetic Sea.” Why? Because it is filled with floating plastic waste.

Between 1999 and 2002, Captain Charles Moore and researchers with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation made several trips to the Pacific Ocean halfway between San Francisco and Hawai’i to study the situation. What he has found is startling.

Dragging trawlers behind his ship, Moore and his researchers took samples to assess the effects of the plastic on sea life. They compared the mass of zooplankton to the mass of plastic and found that for every pound of zooplankton, there were six pounds of plastic.

Plastics accumulate in this region because of the subtropical high, a system of spiraling warm winds travelling from the Equator to the North Pole that produces a funnel-like current. This current pulls in plastics that make their way to sea from street litter of towns and cities all along the Pacific Rim. “It’s possible some of these plastics have been there since the beginning of the plastics era in the ’50s,” says Moore.

California’s coastal wind conditions combine with the winds of the Synthetic Sea to create our own polymer-laden surf, explains Moore. Any waste from the Synthetic Sea that breaks away and gets within fifty miles from the shore is blown onto our bays and beaches. Likewise, debris that is unable to get more than fifty miles offshore gets blown back, where it wreaks havoc with local ecosystems.

Plastics in the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean trap, sicken, and otherwise disable an average of 25 sea lions, harbor seals, and other mammals locally each year, says Jennifer Witherspoon, formerly with the Marine Mammal Center. “Some get tangled in discarded fishing nets and packing strap, and we do save some,” she explains. “We autopsy those who die, and we’ve found plastics and, in one instance, a sock.”

Externally, they can maim wildlife. Witherspoon recalls “Michelin,” a sea lion found with a rubber tube around his neck; researchers had to euthanize him. An elephant seal with packing strap around her middle was lucky. “We cut the strap, and she doubled in size,” says Witherspoon. “She hadn’t been able to take a breath in some time.”

Researchers at the San Francisco Estuary Institute are trying to learn more about the effects of plastic. In a 2002 study, “Identification and Evaluation of Unidentified Organic Compounds,” the Institute looked at a number of pollutants and found five different phthalate compounds around the Bay. Recently the Institute has begun sampling water, sediment, and tissues in bay dwellers like mussels to develop a more complete picture of phthalates, a ubiquitous polymer found in plastics ranging from medical tubing to children’s toys and pacifiers.

Plastics pose many dangers to the ocean. They remain present in perpetuity because of their chemical makeup—the polymers never completely break down on their own, and there is no organism that can help break them down.

Sea-dwelling birds and other species do not distinguish between food and small pieces of plastic. That’s because many of the plastic pieces are small and tan, resembling krill. Resin beads, or nurdles, resemble fish eggs. Birds and other animals ingest these particles, which make them feel sated, robbing them of the drive to find real food and depriving them of nutrients. Some birds, such as the albatross, regurgitate this polymer-laced meal to feed their chicks. Researchers have found shampoo bottle caps and electric wire plugs in the remains of albatross chicks.

Plastics themselves contain endocrine-disrupting compounds such as Bisphenol A or Di-n-butyphthalate. Endocrine disrupters are compounds with chemical structures close to natural hormones. They bind with hormone receptors in species ranging from fish to reptiles to mammals, and can inhibit biological functions such as sexual development and reproduction, and compromise immune systems.

Moore says it is possible to make plastics from row crops and compounds that are biodegradable. He will soon have a platform in which to make his case. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation is currently working under a $482,183 California State Water Resources Control Board grant to research industrial sites and sources of plastic waste in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel River watersheds, where a recent proposal by the regional water board to establish a “TMDL”—or Total Maximum Daily Load—for trash is the target of a lawsuit by the cities the board seeks to regulate. Moore’s foundation is expected to discuss its findings and actions to be taken at the state and local level at an as-yet unscheduled statewide conference set for this year.


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