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Garbage in the Ocean

Waste Barrels on the Ocean Floor

When we think of pollution, most of us have an idea of smoke stacks of energy corporations billowing plumes of dark smoke into the atmosphere, or landfills of garbage piling up to the outer reaches of the sky. Some of us have heard about the “islands of plastic” that are floating through the oceans. But have we thought about the unseen depths of the Earth in which garbage has been piled for who knows how long? I must admit, before watching this video, I had given it little thought.

The Misnomer of ‘Garbage Island’

The Pacific Ocean has been the focus of the studies that I have looked into. The first study focuses on the misconception of the “islands of plastic” that are floating in the ocean. When you search for ‘garbage island in ocean’ on a typical Google Search, you will find many images and articles that talk about the massive floating plastic bottles and so on that have been pushed together by the ocean’s currents to form an island. This is a little bit of a stretch. There are massive amounts of plastic that are found throughout the area between Japan and the United States, and due to the currents of the four oceans merging together in a sort of swell, there is an area where more of the trash has conglomerated. There is no way, however, to truly measure the size of the amount of plastic on the surface of the ocean because it is spread throughout. The majority of the garbage floating on the surface is comprised of small, tiny pieces of plastic that would be comparable to the particles in your face scrub (which by the way are plastic that end up in the oceans and our drinking waters, and are consumed by marine life causing harmful issues). The ocean has collected a massive amount of plastic on the surface, nonetheless, creating a huge issue for the marine life. As one article states, “Captain Charles Moore, head of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, sailed through a rarely traveled area between Hawaii and the mainland. Over the course of a week, despite being hundreds of miles from land, Moore watched a continuous stream of plastic trash float by. Although fishermen and sailors have noted the debris in this area for years, it was Captain Moore who brought the area into the public sphere.” You can find out more about this information here.

Plastics Get in the Food Chain

What hasn’t received much attention, however, is the garbage that has sunk to the depths of the ocean. With an average depth of 12,000 feet, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has been using Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) to scour the depths of the ocean that were previously impossible to reach by man. MBARI found through viewing countless videos of the ROV’s endeavors that the largest proportion of the debris—about one third of the total—consisted of objects made of plastic. Of these objects, more than half were plastic bags. Plastic bags are potentially dangerous to marine life because they can smother attached organisms or choke animals that consume them.

Ocean ROV

Changing the Composition of the Ocean Floor

Metal objects were the second most common type of debris seen in this study. About two thirds of these objects were aluminum, steel, or tin cans. Other common debris included rope, fishing equipment, glass bottles, paper, and cloth items. The researchers found that trash was not randomly distributed on the seafloor. Instead, it collected on steep, rocky slopes, such as the edges of the Monterey Canyon, as well as in a few spots in the canyon axis. The researchers speculate that debris accumulates where ocean currents flow past rocky outcrops or other obstacles. The researchers also discovered that debris was more common in the deeper parts of the canyon, below 2,000 meters (6,500 feet). Kyra Schlining, lead author on this study, stated “I’m sure that there’s a lot more debris in the canyon that we’re not seeing. A lot of it gets buried by underwater landslides and sediment movement. Some of it may also be carried into deeper water, farther down the canyon.”

Marine Trash Spots around Central California

One startling discovery that MBARI made was a shipping container lying at the ocean floor, filled with more than 1,000 steel belted tires. They have continued to undergo research into this particular find, as it has begun to change the biological make up of the ocean floor. The ocean floor, keep in mind, is a soft surface. When a hard, flat surface such as the shipping container covers the ocean floor, marine life that needs that type of surface in order to survive begin to thrive, thus completely changing the composition of the ocean floor. Nobody knows what effects this could have on our oceans, which make up 70 percent of the Earth. The fact is that someone is knowingly dumping garbage into the ocean. Whether it is falling off of ships accidentally, in shipwrecks, floating off of the land and into the oceans, or companies hiring someone to “accidentally” dump the garbage into the ocean to save money, I am willing to bet that this is going to have serious detrimental effects on our ecosystems.

Shipping Container on the Ocean Floor

So, how do we combat the issue? Well, most people will be quick to say, “duh guys, I know this one. Recycle!” Well, did you know that recycling actually costs more money than it would to just recreate the piece of plastic entirely? Think about it, if you are a company, let’s say Pepsi for example, and you want to make sure to keep costs low, would you spend more money recycling your plastic bottles that are dirt cheap to make? Now I’m not saying that this is what they are doing, but I am willing to wager that, from a business 101 perspective, lower costs = higher profits. Recycling = higher cost = lower profit. I bet they would just throw it in the landfill and pretend that they’re recycling it to make the customers feel better, or better yet, throw it in the ocean! Do you see now? The answer is to stop consuming goods that come in wasteful plastic containers, or single use plastic forks, spoons, cups, things like that. This is the only realistic way to save our Earth. If any other organism functioned in this way, scientists would call it a parasite! Let’s make a difference! See more below.

Trash in the deep sea: Bringing a hidden problem to light


Recently, the impact of man made debris on ocean’s ecosystems has not only captured the attention of the scientific community, but the general public as well. Most efforts to document this marine debris have focused on beaches, coastal habitats, and the surface waters of the open ocean. While it is easy for us to notice evidence of human impacts where we live, work, and play, there are remote areas on our planet that we rarely see. One of those places is the deep sea.

Our ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, but with an average depth of 12,000 feet, the deep sea floor is almost as inaccessible as the moon. Due to the challenges and high costs of conducting research deep in the ocean, we know relatively little about human debris in this vast habitat. With the increasing use of advanced technologies like Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV), we are uncovering the far reaching extent of unmanaged garbage.
For the past 25 years, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has recorded evidence of debris up to 13,000 feet deep and 300 miles off shore. MBARI has explored the waters off of Central and Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, and the Gulf of California. We’ve seen trash everywhere we’ve looked. MBARI biologists analyze 3.6 million deep sea observation records from over 18,000 hours of archival video. More than 1,100 observations of marine debris were recorded from the greater Monterey Bay region alone.

The majority of debris items were single use recyclable items. Plastic shopping bags and aluminum beverage cans were most common overall. Surprisingly, plastic and metal were found relatively more frequently at deeper depths suggesting that the extent of marine debris may be far greater than known to date. Garbage may be quickly buried and hidden from view, leading us to further underestimate the problem. The long term effects of trash on deep sea life are largely unknown, but the leaching of chemicals, entanglement, and biological changes to the ecosystem are certainly detrimental.

This shipping container full of more than 1,000 steel belted tires was found on the sea bed. Certain sea floor animals not normally found in this habitat settled on this hard surface in the middle of an otherwise soft, muddy sea floor, disrupting the natural biological community. Degradation of man made debris items in the deep sea is slow. Because there is no sunlight and very low oxygen, plastic could persist for centuries. As it breaks down over time, plastic fragments into very small particles that are more likely to be ingested by the tiny animals living on and within the sediment.

So, what can be done? Unmanaged trash can enter the ocean from land, even far inland, and can be carried long distances by local waterways and wind. Some debris may be discarded or lost overboard from boats. After it reaches the deep sea, it is far too expensive and impractical to locate and retrieve these items. The best solution is to reduce our reliance upon single use, throw away items. Recycling, reusing, and properly disposing of trash items, keeps litter from ever entering our ocean. MBARI researchers hope that this study will help increase awareness of the growing problem of man made debris in all parts of the ocean.

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