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Plastic waste in the Ocean

What is Plastic and why is it so dangerous?

Plastic, fish and duck mussels
Photo from Bryce Groark Alamy

Plastic and its consequences

Plastic is made up of synthetic organic polymers which are formed through the connection of many smaller molecule components. These plastics are produced from fossil fuels, for example, oil and gas. Plastic is used for many products and has already replaced materials, such as paper, glass and wood in many areas. Plastic products are not only inexpensive to produce but they are also quite durable, light and at the same time very stable. But many of these characteristics now constitute a huge problem …

Plastic is made up of synthetic organic polymers which are formed through the connection of many smaller molecule components. These plastics are produced from fossil fuels, for example, oil and gas. Plastic is used for many products and has already replaced materials, such as paper, glass and wood in many areas. Plastic products are not only inexpensive to produce but they are also quite durable, light and at the same time very stable. But many of these characteristics now constitute a huge problem. Plastic does not easily biologically degrade; it accumulates in the environment and often remains there for many decades. Today, huge amounts of plastic float world-wide in our seas, from pole to pole and from the surface of the sea to the deep sea. A majority is floating on the ocean surface and is transported by currents over long distances. Although plastic practically does not decompose, larger parts are reduced to smaller parts of varying sizes by wind, salt and weather. Those smaller than 5 mm in size are called micro plastics. They can hardly be seen with the naked eye. Practically all sea animals, from the big whale to the small copepod swallow waste, which can strangulate, suffocate or starve them. The potential risk of plastic is higher when the direct effects of ingesting plastic, such as constipation and injuries to the digestive tract interact with the chemical pollution of the environment, because plastic can accumulate organic pollutants and heavy metals to a high degree and can therefore serve as a means of transport for pollutants into sea organisms. Additionally, pollutants such as plasticizers added during production can dissolve in the ocean. Many of the pollutants also have hormonal effects and can even be carcinogenic.

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How much plastic is being produced and how much recycled?

Production

The first synthetic plastic “Bakelit” was created by the Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907 and has led to major changes in daily life. A life without plastic is hardly possible anymore and it is a major challenge to find plastic-free alternatives. With the enormous growth for more than 50 years, world-wide production rose to 299 million tons in the year 2013. This corresponds to more than 40 kg per capita and year. Nearly ¼ of this was produced in China. After a sharp decline caused by the financial crisis in 2009, plastic production in Europe stabilized in the year 2013. Today’s production in Europe amounts to about 57 million tons.

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How much plastic is there in the ocean already and how much gets in?

PLASTIC IS EVERYWHERE IN THE OCEANS AND THERE IS ALWAYS MORE

Plastic pollution is found in the oceans everywhere in the world. Plastic pieces are dispersed by wind and surface currents extensively throughout the world’s oceans. According to current estimations, more than 5 billion plastic pieces with a total weight of 268,000 metric tons float here and there in the world’s oceans …

Plastic pollution is found in the oceans everywhere in the world. Plastic pieces are dispersed by wind and surface currents extensively throughout the world’s oceans. According to current estimations, more than 5 billion plastic pieces with a total weight of 268,000 metric tons float here and there in the world’s oceans (233,400 tons of macro plastic, 35,540 tons of micro plastic). More than 1/3 of this mass can be found in the North Pacific, in particular, in the center of the subtropical vortex. This is what researchers, who evaluated data from 24 expeditions over 6 years, found out (Eriksen et al., 2014).

 

The vast majority of plastic floating in the oceans is in small fragments with a size smaller than 5mm, so-called micro-plastic (see graph). Most of the micro-plastic particles are fragments created through the breaking up of bigger plastic pieces. In their nets the researchers mainly found different types of equipment from fisheries which enter the sea directly, such as buoys, lines and nets. But other plastic objects such as buckets, bottles, styrofoam and plastic bags, which came from land, were also found.

 

Although reports about plastic waste in the sea appeared as early as the early 1970s, more than 40 years later there are still no exact estimations about the amount and origin of the plastic waste which enters the ocean. Now researchers at the University of Georgia have published their calculations about the masses of plastic waste which reach the ocean from land through rivers, sewage, wind and tides. They estimate that in the year 2010 about 2.5 billion tons of litter was created by 6.4 billion people (corresponds to 93% of the world’s population), living in 192 coastal states. Approximately 11%, about 275 million tons, of this was plastic waste. Roughly 99.5 million tons of this plastic waste can be attributed to the population living within 50 km from the coast. It is estimated that in 2010 4.8 to 12.7 million tons entered the oceans directly from land or from rivers. The largest share of plastic waste entering the ocean in 2010 came from China and Southeast Asia, mainly through inappropriate waste disposal. If the infrastructure of waste disposal remains the same as today, the amount of plastic litter which enters the ocean from land could reach up to 28 million tons in the year 2025. If the infrastructure of only the 20 countries with the highest waste production were to improve, the amount of waste could be reduced by 50% through recycling. For this, major investments in infrastructure for waste disposal would be necessary, in particular in developing countries.

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We in Kiel: Students’ laboratory and research

In the ocean: lab of the Kiel ‘Forschungswerkstatt’, a set of laboratories at Kiel University open to school classes, the topic “waste in the ocean” is an inherent part of a research day. For example, the pollution of the oceans is studied through experiments. In this way, school students learn what plastic is, how plastic waste enters the ocean and how long it takes plastic waste to decompose in the ocean …

In the ocean: lab of the Kiel ‘Forschungswerkstatt’, a set of laboratories at Kiel University open to school classes, the topic “waste in the ocean” is an inherent part of a research day. For example, the pollution of the oceans is studied through experiments. In this way, school students learn what plastic is, how plastic waste enters the ocean and how long it takes plastic waste to decompose in the ocean. Moreover, they carry out experiments concerning the characteristics of different plastic samples and filter micro plastic from cosmetic products and sediment samples. The activities of the Kiel ‘Forschungswerkstatt’ are addressed to students from the third grade to the thirteenth. According to their level of learning, the students get fascinating insights into marine sciences and into the working methods of scientists. In addition to exploring the inhabitants of the oceans, the learning groups also explore the dangers posed to this habitat by human interference.

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In addition to the programs for entire school classes, the Kiel ‘Forschungswerkstatt’ coordinates the Coastal Cleanup Day along the Kiel Fjord. This international day was initiated by the Ocean Conservancy in order to draw attention to the littering of our oceans on all continents.

In addition to the programs for entire school classes, the Kiel ‘Forschungswerkstatt’ coordinates the Coastal Cleanup Day along the Kiel Fjord. This international day was initiated by the Ocean Conservancy in order to draw attention to the littering of our oceans on all continents. On the so-called Coastal Cleanup Day in the year 2013, about 125kg waste on a 3km long section of beach in Kiel was collected, sorted, counted, weighed and reported to the world-wide database of the Ocean Conservancy by 100 volunteers, in particular school classes. In 2014 an increased stretch of 13.5 km of shoreline was liberated from waste with the help of 503 volunteers from schools and associations. With 423 kg waste, including more than 33 000 cigarette butts, the yield from 2013 was exceeded by far. The collection balance was exceeded again in the year 2015 when 554 volunteers freed 21.8 km of beach in the Kiel Bay from 658 kg of waste.

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In the citizen science project “On the track of plastic waste”, schools students from Germany and Chile collect data for research together with their teachers and marine scientists and actively advocate for the prevention of waste in the world’s oceans. In the first year of the project, 450 school students from the age of ten to 15 with, in total, 20 teachers did joint research on plastic waste at beaches in Germany and Chile …

In the citizen science project “On the track of plastic waste”, schools students from Germany and Chile collect data for research together with their teachers and marine scientists and actively advocate for the prevention of waste in the world’s oceans. In the first year of the project, 450 school students from the age of ten to 15 with, in total, 20 teachers did joint research on plastic waste at beaches in Germany and Chile. Where are the biggest deposits of plastic waste to be found on the German and Chilean coasts? What items make up plastic waste in Germany and Chile? And where does the waste come from? These and further research questions were answered within an international network of school students, teachers and scientists. The students use scientific methods to collect data, take samples at the beach and enter their results on the website www.save-ocean.org. On the website the German-Chilean student groups also exchange information about their experiences and discuss possible solutions.

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Research Projects at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

Are there interactions between micro plastics and small marine organisms, such as unicellular algae and other organic particles such as the excretions of copepods? This question has been raised by scientists at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. Dr. Jan Michels studies the topic aggregation and interaction of micro-plastic particles …

Are there interactions between micro plastics and small marine organisms, such as unicellular algae and other organic particles such as the excretions of copepods? This question has been raised by scientists at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. Dr. Jan Michels studies the topic aggregation and interaction of micro-plastic particles. With the help of laboratory experiments he was able to prove that micro-plastic particles connect to natural particles and that this makes it easier for other particles to also attach to their surface. The results contribute to an understanding of the impacts of micro plastics in the water column. Another research project studied, whether and how fast bacteria decompose plastic bags in the sediment of the sea floor. The result of Alice Nauendorf and her colleagues: Neither classic commercial standard bags, made of polyethylene, nor, so-called compostable plastic bags changed at all after one hundred days on the seafloor. They found neither a reduction in weight nor any chemical changes. Therefore, no decomposition had taken place. However, they were able to clearly see that the compostable bags were populated by bacteria. In addition, scientists in Dr. Matthias Haeckel’s group at GEOMAR have developed a method to calculate micro-plastic parts in sediments. Because of their very small size, it is not an easy task, since micro-plastic particles are barely visible with the naked eye and can very easily be confused with sand grains. Plastic parts are first separated and afterwards a specific microscopy method is used to determine the different types of plastic. This information is particularly important in identifying important sources of micro plastic.

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GAME is an international training and research program in marine ecology which connects applied research and the education of young scientists. Every year, identical experiments, beyond geographical and climatic borders, are carried out in very different locations in the world at the same time.

GAME is an international training and research program in marine ecology which connects applied research and the education of young scientists. Every year, identical experiments, beyond geographical and climatic borders, are carried out in very different locations in the world at the same time. The 11th GAME project in 2013 was the first of in a total of three GAME projects looking at the influence of micro plastics on invertebrate marine organisms. For this purpose, sediment feeders, such as the lugworm, were stored in sediment enriched with micro plastics for two months. Through this, the research team carried out important pioneering work and collected valuable data for follow-up projects. In the following year, the same research institutes came together for a follow-up study. The experimental setup changed slightly compared to the previous year, since in 2014 the teams worked with PVC and not polystyrene, as in 2013. Moreover, the animals were exposed to different particle densities for the first time, in order to test just how much micro plastic pollution would produce negative impacts during the experimental period. In 2016 GAME participants will once again deal with the problems of micro plastics. This time, they will test, whether the influence of micro plastics on invertebrate marine organisms changes if another environmental stressor, in this case heat stress, is added. Thus they will study the potential interactions between two factors of global change.

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Mareike Huhn, doctoral candidate and former participant of the GAME program at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel has founded the support association Marine Conservation South East Asia e.V. (MC-SEA) together with a team of marine biologists, diving teachers and project managers with many years of experience with Asia …

Mareike Huhn, doctoral candidate and former participant of the GAME program at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel has founded the support association Marine Conservation South East Asia e.V. (MC-SEA) together with a team of marine biologists, diving teachers and project managers with many years of experience with Asia. The organization advocates for a sustainable coexistence of humans and the sea in Southeast Asia with the aim of preserving the ecological balance in the region and protecting the biodiversity of the region under water and on the coasts. MC-SEA therefore educates the coastal population in Southeastern countries on how to use natural resources sustainably and dispose of waste products in an environmentally sustainable way. Since 2013, the main focus of attention has been on the establishment of a functioning waste disposal system on the Indonesian Banda islands in the Indo-pacific, one of our earth’s last paradises. For this purpose, MC-SEA is providing the in total seven villages on the main island Banda Naira with waste collection for two months. This will be done by volunteers with trolleys and motorcycle pickups who drive from door to door twice a week and collect the accumulated waste in empty rice bags. After two months the villages are expected to continue and finance the system themselves. Apart from this, since February 2014, weekly waste collection activities have been taking place at different beaches on the island of Naira. These serve primarily an educational purpose. Most people are not aware of the negative impacts of waste on the environment because of insufficient education. Each week a new school class participates in the activities. The preparation of the participating children is one of the most important aspects of these days of action. However, in the long-term a solution for recycling must be developed directly on Banda since removal of the waste is too expensive due to its secluded location. Since the piles of garbage are growing world-wide, there is an urgent need for a sustainable and universally applicable solution for the disposal of waste in the long-term, because in many countries waste is still being burned in the front gardens or disposed of in the environment.

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