Plastic Vortices

By Rachel Roberts

791210_26299131From plastic bags, credit cards, Ziploc™ bags, cell phones, hospital IVs, food packaging, and water bottles, plastic is an incredibly convenient material, and found in almost every aspect of our lives. In California, residents use over 19 billion plastic grocery and merchandise bags each year. That totals to about 552 bags per person, and generates about 137,038 tons of waste, enough to stretch around the globe over 250 times. It is estimated that the total amount of plastic manufactured in the first 10 years of the 20th century, will approach the total amount produced in the entire previous century.

The Great Pacific Garbage patch is home to about 4 million tons of plastic litter—and it’s almost the size of Texas. This vortex, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is heavily polluted with bits of packaging, plastic bags, cigarette lighters, and used diapers. Eighty-six percent of our ocean debris is plastic. Currently, broken plastic pieces outweigh surface zooplankton 6 to 1. Although the Great Pacific Garbage patch is the most commonly studied and reported marine garbage dump, similar garbage patches exist in both the Indian and Atlantic oceans; and this does not even take into account the plastic that sinks down to the ocean floor.

The unfortunate truth is that most plastic does not biodegrad1319997_63769717e, and no naturally occurring organism is able to break it down. Although plastic is able to break into smaller and smaller pieces, not even plastic dust is able to biodegrade. Many plastics remain in the environment for centuries. This can be problematic as birds and marine animals often mistake plastics as food. According to many marine conservation groups, more than a million seabirds, and 1,000,000 mammals and sea turtles die annually from entanglement or ingestion of plastics.

Plastic impacts more than just marine mammal and bird health; plastic bags often “suffocate” coral by wrapping around the living corals and eventually killing them. Human bodies can also absorb the chemicals added to plastics. Some of these chemicals have been found to alter hormones, and have adverse impacts on human health. Furthermore, plastics buried deep in landfills can leak harmful chemicals, which could potentially spread into groundwater aquifers.

1327947_36812068David Barnes, an author and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, has called plastic the cause of, “one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet.” An easy way to limit the consumption of plastic bags is simply to start bringing reusable bags whenever you go shopping. Another easy lifestyle change is to start bringing a water bottle or thermos instead of buying plastic water bottles at the store. Check out the Sustainable World Coalition’s Sustainable World Sourcebook for more tips and ideas about how to reduce plastic use!


“Environment: Healing the Web of Life.” Sustainable World Sourcebook: Critical Issues, Viable Solutions, Resources for Action. Berkeley, CA: Sustainable World Coalition, 2014. 37-39. Print.

“IWMA –  Impact of Plastic on the Environment.” SLO County IWMA. The San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority. Web. 5 Jan. 2015. < of Plastic.html>.

“Impact of Plastic Waste on Oceans, Beaches and the EnvironmentShare.” Reuseit. Web. 5 Jan. 2015. <>.

Knoblauch, Jessica. “The Environmental Toll of Plastics.” Environmental Health News. Environmental Health News, 2 July 2009. Web. 5 Jan. 2015. <>.

Zorba, Shereen, and Melissa Gorelick. “Plastic Waste Causes Financial Damage of US $13 Billion to Marine Ecosystems Ecosystems Each Year as Concern Grows Over Microplastics.” United Nations Environment Program. 23 June 2014. Web. 5 Jan. 2015. <>.



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