THE PROBLEM OF PLASTIC DEBRIS
by Steven Moore, P.E., State Water Resources Control Board, Sausalito*
Accumulation of plastic debris in the world’s oceans and waterways has become an environmental and economic problem of global proportion. Plastic litter was once considered an inert substance and therefore ignored by current generations, but over the past forty years it has slowly built up in the oceans because of its physical properties
that create persistence in the environment. Today, plastic debris appears to outweigh the natural biomass of the upper layer of the gyres of the world’s oceans.1
Besides its obvious aesthetic impact, plastic debris may be undermining the fitness of organisms at all levels of the marine food web through malnourishment (fooling organisms into believing they have ingested food), entanglement, and accumulation of toxic pollutants in plastic pieces that are ingested. Communities in California spend millions of dollars to remove plastic debris from waters and beaches, and the aesthetic impact can harm tourism. In the long run, people should have an interest in addressing the discharge of plastic debris to waterways and the ocean because reduction of ocean productivity and harming of marine life affect the carrying capacity of the planet for human habitation.