Plastic and ocean life– Micro to Mega

Keep the sea plastic free (

Plastic is a serious issue in our oceans. We produce so much of it across the globe and unfortunately a lot ends up in the sea. It becomes wrapped around mammals for years deforming their bodies, eaten by turtles that mistake plastic bags for jellyfish or ingested as microplastics, which can release toxins. Plastic takes 500-1000 years to degrade, so it isn’t going anywhere fast.

Stomach contents of sea bird (
Stomach contents of sea bird (

Currently in the Pacific ocean there is a huge build up of plastic that gets trapped in currents in the gyres and circulates the ocean. Up to 8 % of seals and sea lions can be entangled in plastic and many marine mammals and birds ingest plastic. But who is responsible for removing it? It arrives in international waters where no one is obliged to remove it. A young entrepreneur from Holland has written a proposal for ‘Ocean Cleanup Array’, a device to hoover up plastic and debris from the surface waters but allows animals to swim through. This venture has received a lot of publicity, not all good and is still a long way off from being a reality, but it’s refreshing that someone is attempting to solve this issue.

Ocean Cleanup Array for the Pacific gyre
Ocean Cleanup Array for the Pacific gyre (

The ideal solution would be to reduce plastic production, but there is such a high demand from society for plastic; plastic production increased from 50 million tons in 1950 to 245 million tons in 2008. It’s a similar issue with climate change – do we stop the cause or treat the outcome? Water bottles are one of the biggest problem especially in countries where it is common to drink bottled water, such as the USA.


Alternatively the threat from microplastics is not as obvious to the eye but equally devastating. Microplastics are small (< 5 mm) plastic beads, granules, fibers and fragments that are easily ingested and often result in the consumer not eating normal prey which can cause reduced energy levels and possibly death. Microplastics can also enter animals through the gills due to its small size and the prevalence can be up to 80 % in some species. Humans are at risk too as plastics can be toxic and build up through the food chain, some of which we consume such as fish. Microplastics are either broken down from larger items such as plastic bottles or microbeads from soaps that are designed to be washed down the drain. The term was only coined in 2004 by Prof Richard Thompson (, 2014) but scientists are seriously concerned with their physical and toxic effects to marine life and that we need to ‘turn off the tap’ of plastic to the marine environment.

Microplastics from seawater (
Microplastics from seawater (


Turtle looking to eat a 'jellyfish'
Turtle looking to eat a ‘jellyfish’ (

It’s easy to reduce our personal usage and waste of plastic. Here are some examples:

  • Reuse plastic bags when you go to the shops or use canvas bags, for food AND recreational shopping
  • Don’t drink from plastic bottles or cups, remember to reuse coffee mugs and most coffee houses will fill your own mug
  • Don’t litter
  • Get involved in beach cleans or do one yourself
  • Don’t buy cosmetic scrubs with beads
  • Buy eco-friendly cleaning products, which are often refillable
  • Recycle your plastic if possible

It’s so important we realize the effects of our consumption have on our planet, together we can make a difference!

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