Ocean Confetti!

In many ways, plastic is the perfect material:
we can make it strong and rigid enough to build spaceships and replace bones, or thin
and flexible enough to make shopping bags that weigh as much as a nickel but carry up
to 17 pounds. And unlike other materials, plastic doesn’t rust or rot — it can last
for centuries, even when we only need it to last a few seconds. We make tons of plastic precisely because
it’s cheap, durable and yet expendable. But the features of plastic that make it so
useful to us have also transformed life in the oceans, where as much as 10% of our discarded
plastic — millions of tons per year — ends up. Big pieces of plastic are definitely bad
news for marine animals like whales, albatross, and sea turtles, which risk getting tangled
in the debris or ingesting large pieces of it. Yet despite the publicity about huge garbage
patches in the sea, most of the ocean’s plastic isn’t big — our castaway shopping bags and
soda bottles get weakened by sunlight and torn apart in the wind and the waves into
little bits of plastic confetti. On the micro-scale, though, it’s still super durable — the microorganisms
that decompose ripped-up bits of wood and seaweed down into simpler organic compounds
can’t easily digest plastic. So while the plastic confetti gets broken into smaller
pieces, it doesn’t go away – it just spreads out over time. Which is why we’ve found “microplastics”
pretty much everywhere in the oceans, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and from the
seafloor to the surface. Unlike the easy-to-observe impacts of large
plastic trash, the effects of microplastics are as subtle and difficult to trace as the
fragments themselves: the durable fragments can serve as new real estate on which small
ocean creatures can grow and multiply; or choke slightly larger ocean creatures that
think the plastics are food; or attract and collect toxic chemicals which become introduced
into the food chain if the particles are eaten; and probably a million other problems we haven’t
noticed yet. Because we’ve only recently started paying attention to all these microplastics
in the oceans. But it’s undeniable how much plastic trash
we’ve introduced into marine ecosystems, and the wonderful durability of plastic guarantees
it’ll be an issue for years to come – it’s possible we can decrease further impact by
switching to biodegradable plastics, dumping less plastic in the oceans, or cleaning up
the patches of sea most strewn with plastic, but until we do, the question is, will the
oceans be plastic enough to deal with our favorite material?

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