The ocean is downstream from everywhere else on Earth. Many major river systems and waterways in population centers have a direct path to the oceans, resulting in more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris weighing over 250,000 tons, among other trash, being deposited in the ocean. Marine debris continues to rise as a result of increased human activity in river basins and ineffective waste management systems across the globe. This has led to debris (including clothing fibers, plastics, and other pollutants) conglomerating in massive ocean garbage patches. These patches are a challenge to address as a result of the composition and depth to which the trash penetrates. Plastic marine debris breaks down into smaller pieces until they are microscopic and distribute throughout the water column. These areas are in the global commons, and, with no clear owners, responsibility is diffuse.
Reduce plastic marine debris in the oceans by 90% in 10 years, and undo the harm that has already been done. The Marine Debris Grand Challenge focuses on the three elements of the input system:
Around 80% of marine debris floating in the world’s oceans is plastic. Although most marine debris is from the land, an additional source is from galley waste and other trash from ships, recreational boaters and fishermen (nets and floats), and offshore oil and gas exploration and production facilities.
Ocean plastics absorb chemical pollutants, becoming highly toxic. Studies have shown that the concentration of toxic chemicals, such as PCBs and DDT, can be up to a million times greater in plastic debris than the concentrations found in seawater. Such large and small debris are eaten by sea life, including fish, sea birds, turtles, and marine mammals, introducing toxins into the food chain, and causing problems through blockage or perforation of the digestive tracts of sea life. According to recent papers, many more organisms ingest small plastic particles than previously thought. Floating debris can also negatively affect physical habitats such as clogging up coral reefs or mangroves, reducing their productivity.
Despite efforts toward standardized waste management in North America and Europe, the net amount of nonbiodegradable matter entering the ocean continues to grow. This is especially true for Asian and Latin American countries where growing participation in consumer economies outstrips the capacity (or frequently the existence) of waste management facilities. No nation takes full responsibility for cleaning up marine pollution in international waters. Even if a country were to do so, the clean up would only temporarily solve a fraction of the problem, as existing waste disposal patterns would soon replace what was removed.
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A safer, cheaper, more energy-efficient, and more environmentally-friendly way to upcycle plastics from our oceans and in our waste stream.
Capturing energy and plastic, inspired by plankton