Researchers are finding that ocean currents carry plastic pollution -- cigarette lighters, plastic bags and other trash -- from the world's coastlines to the middle of its oceans. Two experts answer your questions on the impact of plastic ocean pollution.
As a science teacher I would like to know what are the main types of plastics founds in the Pacific gyre and which plastics are the worst in terms of harm to marine life?
Charles Moore responds:
The main types of plastic are polyethylene, 75 percent and polypropylene, 15 percent. They are the most common types of consumer plastics that float. Thousands of Albatross are dying with stomachs full of cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, bottle caps and shards of plastic. Fish, turtles, seals and dolphins die by the millions tangled in derelict fishing gear. FYI, as an example, polypropylene is the bottle cap, polyethylene is the bottle.
Holly Bamford responds:
As you know, there are many different types of plastics that are made for various uses. Because marine debris of all types enter our oceans, every type of plastic can be found from polyethylene terephthalate (e.g., plastic drink bottles) to polystyrene (e.g., expanded polystyrene cup) to polyamide (aka Nylon; e.g., fishing nets).
In terms of harm to marine life, or more generally, wildlife, derelict (lost or abandoned) fishing gear made up of plastic is the debris type with the most studied direct impacts to marine life. There are numerous peer-reviewed scientific publications and reports on the impacts of derelict fishing gear to wildlife, including entanglement, ghostfishing (continuation of derelict fishing gear to capture marine life), habitat degradation, and even alien species transport. All of these in direct or indirect ways impact wildlife.
In the last several years there has been increased attention to small pieces of plastic, including microplastics, and their ability to absorb organic contaminants from the environment. Currently we know it is possible these plastics could also desorb (release) these contaminants. The impact of this to marine habitats and wildlife is still unknown. This is an expanding area of current research and one that NOAA is particularly interested in pursuing.