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By Editorial Board
Oct. 26, 2019 at 5:17 p.m. CDT
“WITHOUT CHANGE,” warns a bipartisan group of senators, “there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans by 2050.” Some of the signs of this growing crisis are visible: sea turtles caught in discarded fishing nets; piles of trash floating in the ocean; birds and fish stranded in plastic six-pack rings.
But much of the trash in the ocean is not so obvious. National Geographic reports that the iconic Great Pacific Garbage Patch — also known as the Pacific trash vortex — is really more of a soup of small plastic particles the sun has broken down, punctuated by larger items such as fishing nets and shoes. Much of the trash is dumped into the sea from ships. But most comes from land: bottles, cups, bags. The sun breaks down these items, but they do not really biodegrade. Instead, they enter animals’ bodies, killing the animals immediately or entering marine food chains. These “microplastics” also block sunlight from supporting plankton and other backbone ecosystem species.
Ocean currents transport trash from shore to the middle of the ocean, but the problem is by no means distant and isolated. Researchers announced in June that they had found microplastic particles off California’s idyllic Monterey Bay. And not just on the surface; the researchers found microplastics in surprising abundance in the middle of the water column. Anyone who cares about the marine ecosystem — and that ought to include every human — should be alarmed.