[Pharmwaste] Oceans awash in toxic seas of plastic
dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Tue Mar 24 13:26:14 EDT 2009
Life's a beach: Plastic garbage on Kamilo Beach in Hawaii (top), where
debris from the Eastern Garbage Patch often accumulates; the swirling
sea of plastic pollution in the central North Pacific (above) ALGALITA
MARINE RESEARCH FOUNDATION; JEAN KENT UNATIN/ ALGALITA MARINE RESEARCH
Oceans awash in toxic seas of plastic
Go down to the beach today and you'll find plenty of garbage among the
sand - but that's nothing compared with the continent-sized whirlpools
of lethal waste out there beyond the horizon
By WINIFRED BIRD
Special to The Japan Times
Umbrella handles. Pens. Popsicle sticks. Lots and lots of toothbrushes.
These are just a few of the items that make up the approximately 13
million sq. km Eastern Garbage Patch, an immense plastic soup in the
Pacific Ocean that starts about 800 km off the coast of California and
extends westward. Sucked from the coasts of Asia and America by ocean
currents, or discarded at sea, plastic debris accumulates there in an
ever-growing mass that does not biodegrade and is said to be already
larger than the United States.
Scientists have long known that plastic in the garbage patch and
elsewhere is stuffing the stomachs of seabirds and causing them to
starve, suffocating fish and choking marine turtles.
But what is now becoming clear is that when pieces of plastic meet other
pollutants in the ocean, the results can be even more toxic. That's
because, as a growing number of studies are showing, the plastic debris
absorbs harmful chemicals from the seawater it floats in, acting like a
"pollution sponge" that concentrates those chemicals and poses a
different, more insidious threat to marine and other life.
Global pollution maps of PCB and DDT levels (below right) found in
pellets tested by Hideshige Takada, a professor of organic geochemistry
at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. HIDESHIGE TAKADA
Evidence of the problem can be found as close to home as Tokyo Bay.
That's where Hideshige Takada, a professor of organic geochemistry at
Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology - and one of the world's
leading researchers on the interaction between plastic garbage and
chemicals in the ocean - headed one windy morning this February to
collect samples for his studies.
Looking like a grown-up version of the children collecting seashells
nearby, Takada, 49, knelt with his nose centimeters from the sand, a
pair of tweezers in one hand and a foil bag in the other. The object of
his search was not shells, however, but plastic resin pellets - a form
of marine plastic pollution he's been studying since 1998.
It's easy to overlook plastic resin pellets. Ranging in diameter from 1
mm to 5 mm, and in color from clear to dingy brown, they look a lot like
overgrown sand. And, like sand, they're now found on beaches all around
According to Charles Moore - a U.S. sea captain-turned-researcher who
discovered the Eastern Garbage Patch in 1997 while crossing the
Doldrums, a windless part of the ocean that mariners usually avoid -
resin pellets account for around 8 percent of annual oil production and
are the raw material for the 260 million tons of plastic the world uses
each year (they're also used in smaller quantities for purposes such as
cleaning pachinko balls and stuffing teddy bears). Lightweight, small,
and seemingly harmless, they escape in untold volumes during transport
and manufacture and eventually wash into the ocean. Once there, as a
2001 paper by Takada, colleague Yukie Mato and four other Japanese
researchers first showed, they suck up a range of persistent organic
Specifically, the 2001 paper focused on polychlorinated biphenyls
(PCBs), a highly toxic group of industrial chemicals, and DDE, a
degraded form of the pesticide DDT. Though PCBs are now banned, and in
most countries DDT use is restricted, neither breaks down readily and
both are still present in seawater. Additionally, these toxins have been
found to accumulate on the seabed, where storms frequently stir them
back into the water, rendering them again liable to be gobbled up by
floating plastic debris.
Both PCBs and DDE have been proven to disrupt the endocrine system, the
extremely sensitive set of glands and hormones that regulate functions
such as insulin production, metabolism and sexual development. And now,
they're showing up in plastic garbage that acts as a magnet to leach
them out of the marine soup.
"Chemicals like PCBs and DDE are very hydrophobic," explains Takada.
"That means they have a very high affinity for oily materials.
Basically, plastics are solid oil. Therefore, plastic pellets accumulate
hydrophobic pollutants with a concentration factor that's almost 1
million times (compared to the overall concentration of the chemicals in
Takada uses pellets in his research because they are a uniform size and
shape and therefore easy to study and compare. But he says that other
types of plastic debris - which comprise a greater proportion of the
plastic in the ocean and include everything from discarded fishing gear
to stray shopping bags and fast-food cartons - display the same tendency
as the pellets to absorb toxins.
What happens next to this poison-laden debris is less certain. Some
pieces certainly sink to the deep ocean floor or are washed up on
beaches. Others, however, have been found in the stomachs of sea
creatures, including fish, birds, marine mammals and reptiles.
Scientists believe some animals may actively select the pellets because
they resemble fish eggs.
Ground zero: The university lab in Tokyo where Hideshige Takada tests
the interactions between plastic garbage and dangerous chemicals in the
ocean. WINIFRED BIRD
Whether the chemicals contained in them are then desorbed to digestive
fluids and transferred to tissues in quantities significant enough to
harm the animals that have eaten them is the subject of intense, but as
yet incomplete, research.
That, though, doesn't stop some scientists from worrying.
"We should be very concerned," says Theo Colborn, founder of The
Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), a U.S.- based organization that
focuses on the health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Though
these health effects are still the topic of much debate, she says a host
of scientific studies have shown that even low-level exposure to
endocrine disrupters may be linked to attention- deficit disorder,
diabetes, falling fertility rates and more.
Hence Colborn is concerned that if fish eat toxic plastic, those same
toxins may be absorbed into the bodies of people who eat the fish.
"Endocrine-disrupting chemicals could also interfere with the ability of
fish to reproduce," she adds.
Meanwhile, at the same time as plastic garbage is acting like a sponge
for environmental pollution, research also shows it is releasing another
set of chemicals into seawater - and possibly into the bodies of the
creatures that eat it.
Chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), nonylphenol and octylphenol are added
to plastic for purposes such as fireproofing and stabilizing. But many
of these additives are proven endocrine disrupters or carcinogens, and
studies have shown beyond doubt that over time they can leach into
seawater (just as they leach into drinking water kept in plastic
It may be tempting to think of all these pollutants as literally drops
in the ocean. Not so says sea captain Charles Moore, who has been
studying the Eastern Garbage Patch since 1997 through the
California-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a nonprofit
organization he founded.
"Subtropical gyres (areas of circular motion) make up 40 percent of the
ocean. That's 25 percent of the globe. All of them are accumulators of
debris," he says.
In other words, although the Eastern Garbage Patch has been studied the
most so far, it isn't the only oceanic rubbish dump out there. A Western
Garbage Patch also exists several hundred kilometers off the coast of
Japan, connected to the Eastern Garbage Patch by a "superhighway" of
garbage, says Moore. In addition, he points to four more vortex-like
gyres scattered around the globe (see illustration).
But he warns that the public's image of such patches may be inaccurate.
"People think of a garbage patch like a pumpkin patch, but it' s not a
big field of garbage as far as the eye can see," Moore says. Rather,
while some big chunks like discarded fishing equipment do float on the
surface, much of the plastic has broken down into tiny pieces that are
mixed into the water - one reason why it is difficult to pin down the
exact size and expansion rate of the garbage patch.
In a 1999 study by Moore, water samples from parts of the Eastern
Garbage Patch were found to contain six times more of these fragments
than zooplankton when the two were compared by dry weight. In
yet-to-be-published research by the same group nine years later,
however, the amount of plastic had doubled - and as plastic continues to
break into tinier and tinier pieces over time, but does not decompose on
a molecular level, the problem is not going away.
Japan is one of the world's main consumers of plastic and also a major
contributor of plastic garbage. In 2004, Japan discarded 10 million tons
of plastic, according to the Plastic Waste Management Institute. About
60 percent of that was either recycled or burned for energy, and most of
the rest went into landfills or was incinerated. Nonetheless, plenty
still ends up in the ocean.
For the past 20 years, the Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN) has
been organizing a yearly beach cleanup and survey. Of the 72,000 pieces
of garbage they recovered in 2007, the top four types found were
polystyrene, hard plastic, cigarette filters and butts, and plastic
sheets and bags.
JEAN spokesperson Yoshiko Ohkura says the government is finally taking
action on the issue by starting its own survey of marine debris.
The 2008 Basic Plan on Ocean Policy acknowledges that marine litter is a
problem, and promotes countermeasures such as a harsher crackdown on
marine environment crimes, support for local governments dealing with
marine litter, and increased international cooperation on the issue.
Ohkura, however, insists that doesn't get to the root of the problem.
"Of course we need rules and industry must follow them. But before that,
consumers have to say, 'we don't need it,' " he argues.
Takada agrees, pointing out: "We can't avoid using plastic, but we use
In fact, he's added a fourth "R" to the ecologist's classic mantra of
"reduce, reuse, recycle": "refuse." The current bring-your-own-bag
movement at retail stores and supermarkets is a good start in terms of
refusing, he notes - as long as that bag itself is not made of plastic.
When it comes to plastic resin pellets, Shoichiro Kobayashi of the Japan
Plastics Industry Federation says his members have taken measures to
"Awareness of the problem is high," says Kobayashi, and has been since
JEAN and other NPOs started publicizing the issue about 15 years ago.
The federation has about 1,000 members, and together with the
2,200-member All Japan Plastic Products Industrial Foundation, the two
groups represent the largest plastic producing companies in Japan.
Kobayashi says his organization encourages members and associated
transport companies to avoid spillage and to cover all drainage pipe
openings with wire mesh. That's helped reduce the problem at larger
companies, he says, but there are more than 20,000 producers of plastic
goods in Japan.
In particular, concern is widespread that smaller companies may not be
as aware of the issue, and accidents inevitably occur - which may help
explain why resin pellets are still washing up on beaches from
Mozambique to Tokyo.
As long as they're out there, Takada has found at least one silver
lining in the toxic clouds suspended in the sea: He's begun using resin
pellets as a monitoring device for global marine pollution.
In 2005, Takada started a project called International Pellet Watch that
tests pellets from around the world for PCBs, agrochemicals and other
pollutants. He says the results can't be used for precise monitoring,
but levels of each pollutant tested in plastic pellets roughly
paralleled levels found in mussels collected from the same area (mussels
are a conventional indicator of marine pollution levels).
That means plastic pellets can be used to form a general picture of how
toxic chemicals are distributed in the ocean - and since pellets are a
whole lot easier than mussels to send through international mail, that's
an important development for marine environmental science.
So next time you find yourself on a seemingly idyllic beach, consider
taking a look around for plastic pellets and sending some to Takada. You
may be surprised by the results.
Sand signals: Plastic pellets on the beach at Odaiba, Tokyo, are a mere
hint of the untold damage countless toxic tons of them are doing far out
at sea. WINIFRED BIRD
The Japan Times: Sunday, March 22, 2009
(C) All rights reserved
Deborah L. DeBiasi
Email: dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
WEB site address: www.deq.virginia.gov
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Office of Water Permit Programs
Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program
PPCPs, EDCs, and Microconstituents
Mail: P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA 23218 (NEW!)
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