Plastic debris dumped in the ocean over decades is breaking into microscopic particles that are cropping up everywhere from beaches to deep ocean sediment, according to a study being published today by a group of British scientists.
This phenomenon has consequences that are just beginning to unfold, the scientists warned.
Widespread littering has led to a steady accumulation of plastic fragments at sea, according to Richard Thompson, a professor at the University of Plymouth.
"It's a cause for concern rather than alarm," Thompson said in a telephone interview yesterday. "There's lots and lots of microscopic bits of plastic. It appears quite ubiquitous. It's likely to be a global problem," he said.
The researchers collected sediment from beaches and from estuarine and subtidal sediments around Plymouth, England. They then examined an additional 17 beaches and looked at plankton samples collected regularly since the 1960s off British shores.
Plastic turned up in small fragments and granules, according to the researchers. Even "biodegradable" plastics leave behind plastic fragments, the scientists discovered, and some cleaning agents contain abrasive plastic bits. "We found plastic archived among the plankton to samples back to the 1960s, but with a significant increase in abundance over time," the authors wrote in today's issue of Science magazine.
Thompson, who received roughly $300,000 in grants to study the prevalence of plastic refuse in the ocean from the Leverhulme Trust, originally funded by a Victorian businessman and entrepreneur, said potentially "it is quite a big problem."
"We need to be a bit more responsible in the way we deal with plastic waste," he said.
Seba Sheavly, director of pollution prevention and monitoring at the Ocean Conservancy, said the study highlights the negative consequences of "poor solid waste management."
"We can fix this. We know better," Sheavly said. "All the rules are out there; we're just not following them."
Rob Krebs, a spokesman for the American Plastics Council, said a lot of the data in Thompson's study "is old, and we'll have to review it."
"The most important thing industry can do about ocean debris is educate each of us about the personal responsibility we have to keep debris from getting into the ocean, no matter what type it is," Krebs said.
'It comes back'
Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of legendary sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, said his nonprofit Ocean Futures Society seeks to educate the public about the ramifications of tossing refuse into the ocean and other environmental issues.
"Our standard of living is completely dependent on how we treat the environment," Cousteau said. "We have to look at nature as capital. You either manage it properly and you live off the interest from the capital. The minute you go beyond the interest to the capital you're heading toward bankruptcy."
"What we throw away doesn't disappear. It comes back one way or another," he added.
Tony Kingsbury, a member of the plastics group at Dow Chemical Co., said his group is working with organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy to curb the kind of littering that clutters the world's oceans.
"We've got to get people educated," said Kingsbury, whose group recently distributed a couple million bags to aid refuse-collection efforts. "Things just don't end up in the ocean."