Myth-Busting: Ocean Plastic

There’s been a video making the rounds of social media, showing rafts of debris floating in the ocean, most of it plastic. I keep seeing it being shared along with laments about how we humans are a scourge on the face of the earth and we’re killing the ocean.

Only… that’s not completely accurate. While the impact of plastic debris is undeniable, the actual ramifications of that are still somewhat murky. For one thing, the oft-quoted cliché that nature abhors a vacuum is quite true. And therefore we can safely theorize that plastic is going to be incorporated into the ecosystem, which it is. Floating debris becomes a ‘plastic reef’ which supports microbial communities that don’t occur elsewhere in the seas. The tiniest of plastic bits can still carry a biofilm community of microbes

It has been long believed that plastic is not biodegradable, but in recent years we’ve found that is simply not true. And it’s not only microbes that eat plastic – there are waxworms that munch away on it, although they are helped along by microbes in their gut that aid in digestion. (like our own gut microbiome!)  This is a slow process, but it means that the scare-mongering about ‘plastics lasting forever!!!’ isn’t accurate and can be taken with a large grain of salt when evaluating the long-term impact of pollution on our oceans and world. 

Scientists studying the mass of plastic in the ocean have been reporting, with undisguised surprise, that there isn’t as much of it in the ocean as there ought to be. How much less? About a hundred times less than was originally calculated. How much of that is due to biodegration through microbial means is still being studied, but that is certainly a factor. Even when not fully broken down, plastic particles less than a millimeter in size become so weighed down by their biofilms that they sink to the bottom of the ocean and become part of the substrate. 

So do we need to worry about plastic in the oceans? Sure. I’m not suggesting you walk out on the pier and pitch your trash in. But on the other hand, we don’t need to worry that the seas of the world are going to become so choked with floating plastic as to make them unnavigable. I wonder if these plastic reefs don’t offer tiny organisms shelter from predators, much like, say, Sargasso mats do. There are drawbacks – the microbes carried by the plastic might be pathogenic – and benefits, like this patent for floating microbes on plastic beads to eat oil (yes, microbes eat that, too. Seriously. If it exists in the ecosystem, I can guarantee you something is going to eat it!). 

35 thoughts on “Myth-Busting: Ocean Plastic

  1. I suspect that extremely large islands of plastic would be seen as an easily harvested source of plastic for recycling.
    The math may not work out.

      1. In aquaponic systems the foam rafts are coated with organisms that break down fish waste into simple products that are available for plants.
        In Mexico floating rafts were used to float gardens.
        Now plastic rafts are being use to grow plants whose roots tie up organic materials to clear up fresh water ways.

    1. That is certainly a factor. By becoming brittle through that, and the wearing action of the water, the microbes are able to aid in the breaking down until it drifts onto the ocean floor.

        1. Pretty much – and that’s a neat example of trash becoming treasure. So much so that most sea-glass jewelry is actually faked, because not enough is found in nature. I wrote up an article on how to do that years ago.

    1. Oh like getting into the subsurface oil deposits and rapidly depleating of all of the wold oil supplies, then eating soybean, canoila, sunflower ,peanut, tree nut .
      No oil for lubrication of wind power, ect.
      No oil for furtilizer.
      Then in finial desperate atempt of survival … human fat layers! Bio-eugenics!

        1. Well, Niven considered that in Ringworld. A bacteria was mentioned that on Earth had developed to eat (IIRC) either vinyl or polystyrene, and they figured that something similar had happened on the Ringworld that killed the superconductors used by the advanced race that lived there.

    2. Hmm. There was a story kind of about that… “The Man Who’s Name Wouldn’t Fit”. Published in ’68. Guy’s name was too long to fit on a punch card, so he got fired. Got his revenge by finding a micro-organism (cultured in grape juice, if I remember right) that ate the adhesive binding on the magnetic tape in the data center, rendering it useless.

      Of course, it spread far and wide, and attacked other adhesives…

      Funny the things you can recall…

    3. Yep read one years ago were the microbes got on a space station and ate up relays necessary for life. Was even more trouble on land and sea electrical fires sinking ships o my.

      1. Can’t remember the name, or which volume – but there was a story that Jerry Pournelle included in one of the There Will Be War books. Soviet bioweapon that was just supposed to eat refined hydrocarbons, immobilizing the enemy war machines. Mutated and invaded the oil wells.

        More cheerful idea, and I don’t remember at all where I saw it – but a microbe that eats coal, turning into a sludge that is easily pumped out like oil. Thus avoiding ugly strip mining, with its expensive restoration afterwards, and dangerous underground mines.

    4. There’s a bit about exactly that in the film version of _The Andromeda Strain_. Happens so fast a pilot has a jet fighter fall apart around him. (And that’s absolutely all I remember from the movie.)

  2. I’ve seen articles on several floating ocean cleaners they’re kind neat. If you couple them with the plastic to oil technology it might pay for itself. I think that microbes will evolve to take advantage of the new food source just as they always have, in addition to what can already utilize it.

  3. This was timely, because just the other day I read a story where the ‘floating island/continent of plastic trash in the ocean’ was mentioned, and I was thinking, probably another SJW exaggeration. Glad to see that I was right!

    1. Highly exaggerated. There are a few of these “islands” – along the edges of the oceanic gyres, where there are more or less permanent vortexes in the water. Those who have actually studied them, though, estimate that the total area of all of them put together are about that of Long Island. (Of course, that is HUGE to the typical person that has no concept of just how big the world is. They cover just about 0.001% of the ocean surface.)

  4. I just got back from a cruise. Traversed the Sargasso Sea diagonally. Didn’t see a hint of any garbage. Lots of seaweed and some flying fish, no garbage.

    FOUR particles per cubic meter, mostly microscopic? that’s practically statistical noise. I wonder what the difference is in increased density of all types of marine life? guessing it all goes up apace with the bacterial count, cuz little fleas invariably have bigger fleas that eat them.

    I recall seeing a map of sources of ocean plastic… boils down to mostly China and India (North America was barely a blip). Oh, I’m so surprised…

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