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Updated 03/05/14

"Plastics, like diamonds, are forever!"

Courtney Griffin

Living in a country surrounded by three oceans and with innumerable lakes, rivers and streams, Canadians are no strangers to water. Crucial to all aspects of our lives, as a life force, ecosystem staple, and habitat provider, water is often taken for granted due to its prevalence and quality in Canada. However, plastic pollution is negatively influencing the attributes of our water.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a section of water which contains vast levels of marine debris. Although the size of the Patch is hard to quantify due to its ever-fluctuating nature, it has been likened to twice the size of the state of Texas. The debris is concentrated in a gyre due to the transportation of particles by oceanic currents. Five such gyres exist globally, though the largest garbage patches are found in the northern hemisphere due to higher levels of industrial activity in coastal regions. This garbage patch was discovered in the 1990s by Captain Charles James Moore and brought attention to the issue of plastic debris in marine environments.

Captain Moore has identified eight key problems created by plastic pollution in marine environments: devaluing beaches and creating health hazards due to medical and sanitary waste; killing marine life via strangulation, drowning, or reduced ability to feed; mimicking natural food so animals/birds consume plastics and feel full while not getting nutrients; acting as transportation vessels for invasive species; containing pollutants which are then ingested by all sizes of sea life; contaminating nesting habitat for coastal species; clogging boating propellers/intake ports and putting lives at risk when clearing the plastics.

Plastic pollution is often determined to be 80% land-sourced and 20% marine-sourced. Therefore, stopping plastics prior to their entry into waterways is considered the most effective method of plastic pollution prevention. Once in the water, plastics break down from macroplastics (such as pop bottles and plastic bags) into fragments known as microplastics.

These microplastics cause innumerable issues for marine biota, water quality, and human safety, as they are known to be eaten by small organisms which are then eaten by larger biota. Microplastics then bioaccumulate in the larger organisms and have been known to cause death due to malnutrition, digestion blockages, and starvation. The resulting alteration of ecosystems eventually comes back to haunt the humans who caused the pollution in the first place.

Research into the quantities and qualities of the pollution has never ceased, with Captain Moore at the helm of his company Algalita, who will be heading a research expedition into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in July 2014. Correspondence from Algalita has revealed that both macro- and micro-plastics are exceptionally dangerous in marine environments. "Because plastics do NOT biodegrade, no naturally occurring organisms can break these polymers down. Instead, plastic goes through a process called photodegradation, where sunlight breaks down plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. Most plastic floats near the sea surface where it is often mistaken for food by birds and fishes. When plastic debris meets the sea its persistence wreak untold havoc in the ecosystems. Other marine debris can injure coral reefs and bottom dwelling species and entangle or drown ocean wildlife. Some species ingest plastic, potentially causing choking or starvation."

Environmental Law Professor Jamie Benidickson from the University of Ottawa, who focuses mainly on wastewater and climate change, noted in correspondence with WaterToday that microplastics often get through wastewater systems due to their small size; the plastics are therefore becoming much more prevalent in bodies of fresh water. He also brings to light the fact that the accumulation of this marine debris is in "sub-regions where its continued circulation presents environmental and economic problems in areas that no one assumes responsibility for." Therein lays a fundamental issue with plastic pollution in water: it's everyone’s fault, but nobody will accept the blame; part of the problem is that most of the pollution lies in international waters over which no nation has jurisdiction.

Some experts believe that cleaning the plastics out of the ocean gyres, especially the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, would be too dangerous to oceanic ecosystems as the particles are so fine that all biotic life would also be removed. The experts suggest that raising awareness and stopping plastics prior to their oceanic entry are the best solutions to plastic waste in the seas. Algalita says, "With a low concentration, unknown distributions and the small particle size, efforts to clean up are extremely expensive, can do as much, or more harm by filtering out zooplankton or other marine life, and utilize far too many resources to "mine" the dilute plastic present."

The Great Lakes have recently been highlighted in the news for their excessive quantities of plastic pollution, particularly in regards to microscrubber beads predominantly found in facial cleansers. These beads are too small to be captured by traditional wastewater filters, thereby passing through the system and being released into waterways where they are frequently eaten by marine organisms.

A major issue with marine biota ingesting plastics is the potential for toxins to be released into their systems. As humans consume marine life, toxins may bioaccumulate, meaning they can build up over time and eventually reach high levels in the human body; this can pose serious health risks. The toxins can also alter the physiology of aquatic organisms, leading to modified reproduction abilities, hormonal imbalances, and brain activity – then we humans eat the toxin-riddled animals and accumulate chemicals in our own bodies.

The consumerist and materialistic nature of today's society focuses on the use of disposable materials, of which plastic constitutes a large portion. The improper disposal of the materials has been affecting water systems for years, though the ultimate impacts are not yet known. In their studies of plastic marine pollution, Algalita researches effects on human health but has no definitive conclusion as of yet. "It is our belief that the potential threat to human health is a real one and remains part of our mission to help in determining this. It will take the medical research community to aid in these studies."

Q&A with Dr. Peter Ross, Marine Mammal Toxicologist and Research Scientist, of the Vancouver Aquarium

Q: What is more dangerous: macro- or micro-plastics? Why?

It depends on who you are… macro-plastics (visible/debris) is most dangerous to larger aquatic species, where it can suffocate, strangle or obstruct gastro intestinal tracts. Very visual impacts in this category include plastic bags and sea turtles, stomachs full of all manner of garbage in albatrosses, and entangled seals and whales. Microplastics are potentially problematic to small creatures, notably those who might mistake microplastics (invisible to the human eye) for food. Here we think of zooplankton species or shellfish at the bottom of the food chain. While some studies have detected microplastics in the stomachs of zooplankton, it is unclear how serious this impact might be on a broader scale.

Q: How are plastics in marine environments detrimental to human health?

We tend to consider micro and macroplastics are problematic for the health of aquatic (freshwater and marine) creatures, but any pollutant that gets into commercial fish could be later consumed by humans. I suspect this is not a major health threat compared to other pollutants, but some of these plastics contain small amounts of endocrine disrupting compounds like BPA or act to absorb other chemicals of concern (PCBs, dioxins, DDT etc).

Q: Is there any feasible way to clean the plastics out of waterways?

The best way is to reduce deliberate inputs of personal care products (facial scrubbers, toothpastes) that contain microplastics into sewage effluent, and limit the accidental release of commercial plastic pellets and other wastes. Once released, dedicated removal of debris offers a chance to reduce the supply of 'parent products' that form an ultimate source for broken down bits of plastics by way of e.g. the Vancouver Aquarium 'Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup'.

Q: From your studies and overall understanding, what are the biggest problems caused by marine plastic pollution?

We have only just begun to document microplastics in Canadian coastal waters, and have much to do yet. Our priority therefore is to carry out research which will answer such basic questions as "Where are these particles coming from?", "are they harming biota?" "How extensive is the microplastics problem in Canadian coastal waters?".

Q: What would be the best way to move forward and prevent/deal with plastic pollution?

There exists no dedicated research programme that can provide guidance on the extent and nature of the problem of microplastics pollution in the Canadian aquatic environment, so this is the foundational imperative, namely document and track the source, movement and effects in aquatic environments, and then to try to 'turn off the tap' at source. This is a high priority for the new 'Ocean Pollution Science Program' at the Vancouver Aquarium. Clearly, plastics are a part of every Canadians everyday life, so part of the solution starts at home: wise consumers and households can reduce the introduction of litter/waste/cosmetic plastics. Industry and governments have a role to play as well. Research will hopefully provide us with more guidance that will inform these sectors.

Q: Who is responsible for plastic pollution (ie. industries, countries, individuals, everyone...)?

All of the above…

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