Plastic Ocean

by firmm Team

Text: Elisabeth Kubin, volunteer at firmm

Elli und Statueneu klein

The storm which came over Tarifa in April brought heavy rainfall, making our boat trips impossible and leaving an interesting, and at the same time alarming, "ocean" of animals, plants and other things washed ashore.

Besides two small stranded rays which were already dead, lots of sea cucumbers, sea urchins, starfish, huge seaweed and different kinds of jelly fish, a huge "ocean" of plastics, partly disintegrated into small units, had been washed ashore, mixed with the stranded animals and plants.

It was as if the plastics already belonged to the natural components of the ocean.

Manu Espana 089Manu Espana 090

Photo: Plastics: This piece of plastic looks remarkably like a marine creature. Photo taken by Manuela and myself.

Plastic is a synthetically or semi-synthetically produced polymer (= chains composed of repeating structural units, so called monomers). We mean with synthesis a process in which more complexly compound materials are created from simple compound materials.
Most plastics are polymers where the carbon is responsible for the binding of the chain.

The polymeric units of plastics are not water soluble and are not able to pass the cell membranes of micro-organisms. That means that there is no interaction with living organisms. Micro-organisms can only process plastics with extra-cellular enzymes which divide the materials into smaller units which can then be absorbed by the cell. However, this process only occurs as surface erosion.
Therefore, the danger for the environment doesn't come from the polymers themselves because they don't interact so easily with living cells, but it comes from the additive materials added to the plastics, such as diluting agents, stabilisers, colorants or filler materials. Some of these additives may also diffuse through the package to foods and thus be dangerous for people as well.

New polymers that can be decomposed by microorganisms are called biodegradable plastics or biopolymers.
These bioplastics are decomposed by moisture, warmth and soil organisms. Their disadvantage is that they may also be dissolved by the rain.
Bioplastics are not made from crude oil but from corn, sugar beets, cereals, lactic acid or cellulose (wood), which are renewable resources. However, this is a similarly big problem, because we have to consider the real environmental burden of the packaging from its production to its disposal. In order to get biodegradable plastics, large areas of land would have to be cultivated, and fertilization would pollute water and land. In order to get the large cultivation areas, large areas of forests would have to be destroyed (including many rainforests), which again would contribute to the CO2 problem, and above all, biodiversity would be affected, too. In addition, biodegradable doesn't mean that it is suitable for compost. Composting businesses refuse bioplastics because they take much longer to decay than materials suitable for the compost. Therefore, bioplastics bring many problems with them, too.

If we consider things more precisely, the main problem is that certain plastic parts are only used once and for a short time.

According to our fast lifestyles, more and more throw-away products are manufactured, which leads to huge litter problems.

In addition, we have to consider that plastics account for 5% of the worldwide crude oil's needs. They are made from refined crude oils.
Crude oils take millions of years to develop; a plastic bag is often used for only a few minutes, hours or days, and then it takes 1000 years to dissolve again. During all these years, the plastic bag can be very harmful for the environment, and above all for the fauna.
Plastics can also accumulate high concentrations of toxic substances, such as DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) or PCB (Polychlorinated biphenyl).

Every year about one million seabirds and 100000 marine mammals die from floating plastic waste. 80% of the plastics which drift in the ocean have been thrown away on shore or blown over.
Plastics don't only release additives which are sometimes toxic but they also get into the food chain of the animals, because the plastics are often confused with food by the animals . The following photograph shows the stomach content of a minke whale found dead near England.


Photo: Stomach content of a dead minke whale that couldn't eat anymore because its stomach was filled with indigestible plastics.
[Source: ]

Seabirds often confuse floating plastics with fish or squid. A Dutch study realized between 2002 and 2004 examining 819 fulmars showed that 93% of the birds had plastics in their stomachs.

Turtles suffer very much from the plastics, too; they cannot distinguish between floating plastic bags and jellyfish. Here in the Strait of Gibraltar I have myself seen a turtle (Caretta Caretta) that couldn't dive down anymore because it had swallowed a plastic bag which might have contained an air bubble.

Even the large baleen whales, such as blue and fin whales, filtering their food through baleen, also filter many little plastic parts because in the sunlight, such little plastic pieces don't look very different from zooplankton, like fish larvae for example.

And little plastic pieces are even filtered from the water by zooplankton, such as little crabs.


Photo: Krill filtering Diatoms. Unfortunately, it isn't always only Diatoms that are filtered but also little plastic pieces, which can accumulate toxic substances like DDT or PBC.
[Source: ]

Not only plastics floating at the surface of the oceans are causing problems but also, and above all, plastics which drop and cover the floors of the deep seas, as well as lakes and rivers. About 70 % of the plastics drop to the floors of the oceans, where they cover and suffocate marine life completely. Dutch scientists have found 600000 tons of plastics at the bottom of the North Sea.

In the North Pacific there is already a giant "carpet" of floating plastics and litter (2 times the size of Texas). It is kept at the same place because of the predominant currents and winds, increasing in size and accumulating more and more litter. This indigestible swirl is fatal for life in the ocean and for the birds.


Photo: North Pacific swirl, where all the floating (plastic) litter accumulates.

In many countries there are already efforts to dam up the plastic flood. Since 2002, when plastic bags were charged in Ireland, consumption has dropped from 238 plastic bags per person and year to 21 bags per person and year. Also in most of the Central European and Northern European countries, no plastic bags are given out for free in the shops anymore, and shopping bags or cardboard boxes available at the exit of shops are used instead.
In China, it will be forbidden to give out plastic bags for free as from the first of June, and in South Africa, people violating these new "plastic laws" will even be fined or jailed.
France is planning to remove any plastic bags from the shopping centers by 2010.

Unfortunately, there is a very high consumption of plastics in Spain: 238 plastic bags are consumed per person every year, and 1 trillion plastic bags is produced in Spain every year. In the shopping centers, they are wastefully offered and given out in huge amounts, just to be blown into the ocean by the wind on the following day. The above mentioned numbers could be considerably diminished by implementing a 30-cent charge per plastic bag.

There are still many things to be done but every person can contribute to an improvement by taking home his or her own litter and disposing of it properly, and maybe also by picking up a plastic bag found in the middle of untouched nature and by using a reusable (cloth) bag for shopping.
To reuse things is more important than to waste lots of energy to produce non-returnable products, even if they are biodegradable.

During my grandmother's time, linen bags were used for everything; large amounts of groceries, such as flour and potatoes, were offered on the markets and people took the amounts they needed into their linen bags, which were then weighed and paid…

We praise ourselves for new, complicated and large achievements but it seems that the simple things don't work anymore…


Perhaps the answer to this question is simply to be happy with fewer things.

If you want to be happy, travel with little baggage. This refers also to the journey of your life.

[Antoine de Saint-Exupéry]

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