Plastics – A Global Health Problem

Plastic pollution is a global problem and a part of our physically interconnected world. Even on the most remote isles you can’t get away from it.  In fact, these are the places where ocean currents transport plastic debris and collect it on beaches in such great quantities that the local sea birds feed mouthfuls of plastic to their young.  Unlike the raw fossil fuels that plastic is made from, there is very little news coverage about the constant spill of plastic debris into the environment, equally bad, if not worse for marine life that a one-off oil spill. For example, Americans throw away about 1 billion plastic bags a year, the rough equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil (  Plastics are mass-produced on a monumental scale, all across the globe, and any international efforts to reduce the vast amount of plastic being produced are minimal. A trip to your local supermarket will confirm this. It embraces the food and the products that we consume like a new layer of our atmosphere. (Indeed, the recently discovered “Plastisphere” is a whole ecosystem, existing in a three meter deep slick across all the ocean’s surfaces and bottoms, of plastic debris and the microbes and microorganisms that live on it).

 Plastic debris concentrates at levels estimated to be over six-times greater than the plankton, or living plant and animal matter in eleven, major ocean gyres, or colossal whirlpools where ocean currents come together in eddies that some estimate to be about the size of the state of Texas. These immortal particles of plastic cannot be broken down by any natural processes, but instead degrade by sunlight (“photo-degrade”) into smaller and smaller pieces that are harder to clean up and more likely to enter the marine food web at the lower levels.


Animals that get their food from the sea, namely sea birds and fish, along with a whole range of marine predators from jellies to crustaceans to whales, consume these broken down plastic particles, as well as large pieces of plastic trash. In March 2012, on a beach south of Granada, Spain, a majestic sperm whale, apex consumer of the deep-sea dwelling giant squid, washed up on the beach “in a state of advanced emaciation”, with over 17 kg (or 37 pounds) of garbage blocking its stomach, including some 30 square m (or 36 square yards) of plastic canvas, a dozen m of plastic rope, plastic sheeting used in greenhouses, and even two flower pots. “There was so much plastic that it finally exploded,” said Renaud de Stephanis, a marine biologist conducting the necropsy. Nevertheless, it is not these big pieces that are the biggest problem.  Tiny (2-5mm) bits of plastic, or “nurdles”, look like fish eggs and are swallowed up all too easily.   



As if this wasn’t bad enough, plastic has a physical attraction, known as sorbing, to toxic chemicals, like heavy metals and any pollutants that last in the water for extended periods. The food web thus acts as a storage facility for these persistent organic pollutants (POP’s), which get trapped in the fatty tissues of fish and other organisms as they consume the contaminated plastic debris. The higher you go in the food web, the more organisms below will have eaten, collected and stored these plastics and associated toxins so that animals at the top of the food chain, such as Orcas and ourselves, get the brunt of the toxic cocktail. Have you ever heard of a fire-proof Orca? They were discovered after the heavy use of fire-retrdant chemicals (polybrominated biphenyl ethers, or PBDE’s) (Ross,2005) that were once required for household safety, such as in furniture.  


“In a 1994-1995 study plastics were found in 97.6% of Laysan albatross chicks sampled, and the masses recorded (23.8 g in dead chicks in 1994 and 18.1 g in 1995) are in the same order as those for the 1980s, which suggests an upward trend in concentrations of plastic debris on the surface of the north central Pacific Ocean since the mid-1960s (Heidi J. Auman et al., 1997).”

Ironically, some of us eat the same salmon that these contaminated Orca eat, along with fish that are higher in the food web like Tuna and Marlin.  By consuming contaminated fish, we are poisoning ourselves with our own plastic pollution, and at the same time our plastic rubbish is adding to the list of human impacts that are putting the entire marine ecosystem in peril! So why, you might ask, is this issue not being adequately addressed by governments designated to protect both their people and their environments? Some major cities have banned the plastic bag, which is a promising step forward (see this link for an interactive map of these cities:, but again, a trip to the shop or to the beach will remind you that the plastic bag is not the only manifestation of the plastic plague. I have worked on remote beaches in places like Costa Rica where I researched nesting sea turtles, and I observed that there was almost as much plastic debris on the beach as natural debris like wood, leaves and seeds.

Plastic is just as abundant on our local beaches. I went to Evan’s Bay Beach in Wellington in search of plastic because Sea Shepherd beach clean-up volunteers said it was a local hot-spot, like a mini-gyre if you will, for marine debris collection.  I found it in droves. In less than 15 minutes, by using a shovel to scrape off a 3cm deep, one square meter surface sample, I filled a tray with hundreds of bottle caps, bottles, lighters, Popsicle sticks, plastic Route pasta like wheels from Submerged Aerated Filter ( SAF ) systems, and the little clear balls called nurdels.

I guess that this diversity of plastics should not come as a surprise, considering that humanity produced nearly 300 million tons of plastic in 2012. That’s more than humanity itself weighs! I guess the real surprise is that so much of this plastic ends up in the sea. Scientists even hypothesize that sea ice could be an important sink for marine plastic debris, and four ice cores gathered on expeditions to the Arctic in 2005-10 revealed particles of rayon, polyester, nylon, polypropylene, polystyrene, acrylic, and polyethylene (Obbard et al. 2014).

Plastic is not just on the surface but it also litters the ocean floor. Scientists from the University of the Azores took nearly 600 samples from across the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and in the Mediterranean Sea, from depths ranging from 35 meters to 4.5 km and discovered litter at each site they surveyed, with plastic accounting for 41% of the trash and discarded fishing gear for 34% (

Where there are lava flows in Hawaii, plastic debris is fusing to denser materials, like rock and coral, where it will sink to the sea floor, become buried and possibly be preserved in the geologic record, so that future generations will remember this era as “The Plasticene.”


This is all the more concerning for people when we consider that marine micro-plastic fragments contain concentrations of toxic chemicals millions of times higher than the surrounding sea water, such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants, or POP’s, which are used as pesticides and in industrial processes, and are known to cause problems such as cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, immunological, behavioral, neurological and reproductive disorders in humans and animals.

The Inuit people of the Arctic eat fish and marine mammals at the top of the marine food web. The following is a quote from an Arctic grandmother, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who also serves as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference ICC: “As we put our babies to our breasts we are feeding them a noxious, toxic cocktail, when women have to think twice about breast-feeding their babies, surely that must be a wake-up call to the world (The American Indian Quarterly 26.3 (2002) 479-490).

But are we really waking up, or are we still asleep? Each New Zealander consumes approximately 31 kg of plastic packaging per-year (%61 per cent of plastics made in New Zealand are used for packaging) and recycles 5.58kg (MfE, 2002), so that about 200,000 tons of plastic goes to landfills in NZ every year.  The contribution of these land-based activities vs. activities at sea (such as spilt cargo containers) to marine plastic pollution is estimated at 80%.  Globally, about 225 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually, and about 10% of this finds its way into the ocean, which equates to about 20 billion pounds of plastic put into the oceans each year! (citations needed)

If they’re still around, ask your grandparents and great grandparents what life was like without mass produced plastic.  Was it as bad as the plastic manufacturers want you to believe?  Evidently this is no small industry, and business as usual is driven by big business. Plastic promoters will tell you that recycling works.  They will tell you that manufacturing paper uses just over  ten times as many chemicals, electricity, cooling water, and process water to produce than plastic, and that the lightness of plastic saves fuel costs on trucks and planes.  But it also uses around 40% more petroleum to make.  Is plastic a major part of our oil addiction? 

Plastic also has other serious ecological impacts (like mortality or sub-lethal effects on plants and animals through entanglements, captures, physical damage and ingestion – including the consumption of micro-plastics and the release of associated chemicals into the food web, as well as other unforeseen effects like facilitating the invasion of alien species and altering benthic community structure).

On top of this, plastics have major economic impacts and it is easy to foresee the potential cost to NZ’s second biggest economy – tourism, as well as other costs like damage to vessels and losses to fishery operations through cleaning costs.  Most concerning, however, is the obvious threat to public health and safety and the loss of Mauri or life force in NZ and in the world’s oceans at large.  

Do you have questions about plastic pollution in “Clean Green NZ”? Here are some of mine:

  • How do we turn off the tap and stop plastic at its source?
  • Can storm drains and wastewater treatment (and associated plastic pollution) be better managed? (I want my tax dollars to be used to protect NZ’s most valuable ecosystem services!)
  • How do we, the concerned citizens, best approach the public, local businesses & decision makers with initiatives that reduce plastic production and consumption?
  • What plastics am I willing to give up as an individual? (See an impressive list that one blogger came up with on Beth Terry’s
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