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16.6: Solid Waste and Marine Life

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    Ocean dumping has also been a popular way for coastal communities to dispose of their solid wastes. In this method, large barges carry waste out to sea and dump it into the ocean (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)). That practice is now banned in the United States due to the pollution problems it created. However, much trash escapes to the ocean through littering and illegal dumping. Additionally, wind carries trash off of overfilled containers, landfills, or open dumps (where they are still used).

    A ship filled with trash at sea with a cityscape in the backgroundTrash strewn about the beach
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Left: A garbage barge leaves Manhattan. Right: Marine debris at the beach. Left image and caption by EPA (public domain), and right image and caption by NOAA (public domain).

    Garbage patches form from waste that escapes to the ocean. Plastic breaks down into smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight and ample oxygen. These pieces of plastic are trapped in calm parts of the ocean that are surrounded by strong, circular currents (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)). Garbage patches may not be visible from the surface of the ocean, and the plastic pieces may be up to 20 meters deep.

    Map of the Pacific Ocean showing the Western Garbage Patch and Eastern Garbage Patch
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): Locations of the largest garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean. The Western Garbage Patch is closer to Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch is closer to California. The Subtropical Convergence Zone is in the middle to the north. Ocean currents including the Kuroshio Current (left), North Pacific Current (top), California Current (right), and North Equatorial Current (bottom) are labeled. Image by Boyan Slat (public domain).

    Plastic and other trash harms marine life in several ways. Old fishing nets and plastic six-pack rings trap wildlife. Additionally, organisms that ingest plastic risk choking. Ingested plastic may cut internal organs, limit space available for food, and carry toxins (figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)).

    A dead Albatross is filled with trash
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): Much of this dead albatross's digestive system was filled with plastic waste. Image by Forest and Kim Starr (CC-BY).

    Interactive Element

    Edible six-pack rings offer a solution to the problem of plastic six-pack rings harming wildlife. You can read more about them here.


    Melissa Ha (CC-BY-NC) and Solid Waste from AP Environmental Science by University of California College Prep (CC-BY). Download for free at CNX.

    This page titled 16.6: Solid Waste and Marine Life is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .