Studying plastics in the ocean

By Christopher B. Daly 

One of the bedrock principles of ecology is that there is no such place as “away” – as in phrase, I threw that away. In fact, the Earth is a closed system. Everything has to go somewhere. If you try to throw something away, it has to go somewhere.

In recent decades, we have been throwing a lot of plastic into the world’s oceans. No surprise: it’s still there. And it’s not going anywhere soon. Most plastics are very persistent, and while they may break up into smaller and smaller pieces, those tiny fragments keep swirling around the oceans.

Another insight from ecology is that most situations present opportunities for

Plastic fleck covered with bacteria  Sea Education Assn

Plastic fleck covered with bacteria
Sea Education Assn

someone. In the case of the billions of flecks of plastics, it turns out that they can serve as a “home” for all sorts of microbial communities.

A story in today’s Boston Globe reports on research being done by the indispensable Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. All those new environmental niches — known collectively as the “plastisphere — support colonies of micro-organisms.

That’s not to justify the pollution of the oceans with persistent plastics. They create all sorts of problems throughout their lengthy lifetimes.

One highly visible example involves balloons. Many of the mylar and nylon balloons that are filled with helium escape from the parties where they were intended to be enjoyed. All too often, a balloon escapes and flies “away” — except, as we know, there is no place called Away. Eventually, those balloons come down, and a lot of them seem to fall into the oceans. Many of them stay there, snagging fish and gagging turtles. Others wash ashore and litter ourIMG_2339 beaches.

A few weeks ago, walking on a south-facing beach on Martha’s Vineyard, I started noticing just how many balloons there were. My non-scientific finding: A LOT.


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