Entanglement in Marine Debris
"There is a great future in plastics."
— Mr. McGuire, "The Graduate" 1967
In the half century since "The Graduate" predicted their importance, plastics really have transformed every aspect of modern life. Plastic is everywhere. From the moment we're born, until long after we've gone to the grave, we are practically swimming in plastics. Unfortunately for many of the world's sea creatures, they literally ARE swimming in them.
Plastics are celebrated for being incredibly versatile and cheap to produce, and even though some people may prefer metal, wood, or stone materials, plastics have found widespread use in many applications and settings. For better or worse, plastics have proven to be virtually impervious to biodegradation. In fact, most petroleum based plastics take decades or centuries to "degrade" when exposed to sunlight while on land — not in a landfill or seawater — and they never really go away. They merely crumble into smaller, less visible plastics particles that are entering the food chain and causing unknown effects.
Thanks to industrialization and the burgeoning global human population, each year we produce almost endless quantities of plastics, an estimated 10% of which ends up in our oceans. That fraction amounted to over 38 million tons entering the ocean in 2015 alone despite stringent, decades-old international laws that prohibit deliberate dumping at sea. How is this even possible? Well, it turns out that the majority of plastics are actually entering oceans from land-based sources. Virtually everyone has seen plastic bags carried away on the winds or floating by in the water. Oceanic plastics are distributed globally via ocean currents and prevailing winds to the extent that they are now found in all of the world's oceans and on even the most remote shorelines. The story of Friendly Floatees illustrates the longevity and movement of plastics well. Basically, in 1992 a storm knocked a shipping container of children's bath toys overboard in the North Pacific and the toys have been washing up on beaches around the world ever since.